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‘Antlers’ Explores Grief With Abuse, Depression, and a Wendigo

Scott Cooper’s latest is a horror film about, wait for it, trauma! Luckily for viewers it also has a pretty creepy and cool monster too.
a drawing in Antlers
Fox Searchlight
By  · Published on October 22nd, 2021

If you’ve felt as if the last few years have been more traumatic than most, please know you’re not alone. If, however, you feel that the same time frame has seen an uptick in horror films about trauma, well… you’re still not alone. To be fair, elements like trauma, grief, and PTSD have been present in genre films for decades, but there’s no denying that they feel far more concentrated these days. Horrors as diverse as Doctor Sleep (2019), Midsommar (2019), and Halloween (2018) have approached the idea in different ways and with varying success, and now one more horror movie can be added to the list. Scott Cooper‘s Antlers, unfolds amid a town that’s struggling and with characters who are drowning in their own emotional prisons. It’s a dark and dreary ride, but happily, it also comes with a terrifically creepy creature as well.

Julia (Keri Russell) has returned to the small Oregon town where she grew up, and all it took was the death of her abusive father to draw her back. She’s living with her brother the sheriff (Jesse Plemons) and still struggles with what she endured at their father’s hand, but each day that she resists the drink and works to teach kids at the town’s elementary school is a victory. One child catches her eye — Lucas (Jeremy T. Thomas) is becoming increasingly withdrawn, distanced, and timid, and Julia believes she recognizes the signs of abuse that she’s all too familiar with. A quick search of his desk seemingly confirms it as she finds grisly drawings, the bible, and books on evil spirits and animal traps. Something is definitely wrong with the boy, but Julia could hardly predict the truth.

About how Lucas’ father was attacked by a creature out of Indigenous mythology. And how both the man and Lucas’ younger brother became sick after and in need of fresh meat which Lucas supplies. And how his dad is turning into something monstrous.

The long delayed Antlers probably wasn’t held back by Oregon’s Tourism Bureau, but you wouldn’t necessarily blame them for trying as it’s a less than flattering look at the state — opioid addiction, domestic violence, white supremacy, unemployment, the sense that no matter what you do you can never shake the cold and wet that’s seeped into your bones. (Not saying it’s inaccurate, but it’s certainly not all Oregon has to offer…) Now that it’s here, though, it seems clear that in addition to Covid-related delays there might have been some concern over the film’s final cut. As it stands, it feels at ninety-nine minutes like shaky executives have trimmed more than a few scenes in the hopes of lightening the oppressive and overcast tone and speeding things along. If so, it’s a shame, as the bones of something grim and special are still here even if the flesh has been gnawed away.

We’re given the briefest of glimpses of the antlered beast at the very start, but it takes what amounts to a cameo from the film’s sole Native American character (Graham Greene) to explain to both characters and audiences alike that the creature is a wendigo. Julia buys into it immediately even if her brother Paul remains more rational, but as Warren (Greene) says, it’s strange that the being’s presence seems wholly disconnected from the area’s Native population. And with that, the film’s Indigenous element is complete. Centering the tale on specific characters is fine, but it’s an odd and arguably disrespectful choice to literally bring in a single Native character to offer expositional lore only to then peace out completely.

It’s probably for the best, though, as iterations of the wendigo with a deer’s antlers — the kind most often captured in genre entertainment and repeated here — is a European addition to Indigenous myths and legends. An element that does carry over involves the spirit’s voracious appetite for human flesh. Once it’s taken possession of a human host it eats and eats only to grow ever hungrier. It’s an idea rife for metaphorical application in horror, but Antlers instead simply sets it loose on the desperate and downtrodden as if their own depths have drawn the creature’s teeth their way. The script (by Henry Chaisson, Nick Antosca, and Cooper) touches on these ideas, including mention of the beast’s singular weakness, but the film’s third act feels so rushed that the details are lost in the rain.

What remains are a pair of strong performances by Russell and Thomas and the oppressively heavy weight hanging over their heads. Both have suffered, both are suffering, and it’s that bleakly realized shared trait that draws them together. Both actors, and the film itself, capture their quiet pain well without resorting to showing their numerous abuses to audiences. We get it, we see it on their faces and in the way they carry themselves, and we worry something even worse awaits them in the dark.

Cooper delivers both atmosphere and legit thrills with Antlers whenever the creature arrives on scene, and its mixed presentation of practical effects and CG succeed and creating a memorable monster. It’s a brute of a beast with one close-up of its face drawn out with terrific results, and Cooper even finds unsettling creepiness in the monster’s still human form. The dreary atmosphere amplifies an understanding as to why and how people give up on themselves and others, but like sunshine in the Fall sky, the drive to overcome it all struggles to break through. One character makes an attitude shift with no precedence, another acts on knowledge we never saw them acquire, and the abrupt end leaves more questions than answers.

Antlers features a few jump scares along the way, and one of them is a damn doozy, but the denser elements of horror feel lost to the cutting room floor (if they were even filmed, it’s possible this is just a weak script). From residual trauma to a disregard for original peoples and beliefs, from facing what haunts you to the dangers of unconditional love — the wendigo’s presence offers the filmmakers plenty of meat for the film to chew on. Unfortunately, it still leave viewers hungry for something more.

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.