Two months before the pandemic hit, I was in a small screening room on the Fox lot for a screening of ANTLERS, the first horror film from acclaimed director Scott Cooper and produced by Guillermo del Toro, based upon the short story, “The Quiet Boy,” by Nick Antosca. Upon seeing it, I couldn’t wait for the embargo to lift to talk about one of the most anticipated horror films of the year. And then… well… we know what happened. After facing numerous delays, ANTLERS finally had its World Premiere at Beyond Fest this October. With the film being released in theaters, many are wondering if it’ll live up to its hype. For this critic, it did far more than that.
For the sake of spoilers, I’ll turn to the official synopsis: “In an isolated Oregon town, a middle-school teacher (Keri Russell) and her sheriff brother (Jesse Plemons) become embroiled with her enigmatic student (Jeremy T. Thomas) whose dark secrets lead to terrifying encounters with a legendary ancestral creature who came before them.”
ANTLERS is not an easy film. It’s heavy and bleak and, at times, it almost feels painful as it rips apart an open wound of past tragedies and traumas surrounding its three main characters. As much as I really felt connected with this movie, it’s not a perfect film. There’s a difference between a movie that impacts on an emotional level and that of critiquing how the film was put together and executed. Though ANTLERS stumbles quite a few times and could have fleshed out some of the characters more, the film has a lot to say about the price of stolen land and the impact of generational trauma.
Director Scott Cooper is no stranger to exploring the complexities and flaws within people. Similar to his 2013 film, Out of the Furnace, ANTLERS has a very distinct look of an isolated town in an economic downfall after the closing of coal mines. The film tackles more than its fair share of societal issues ranging from addiction to poverty all through the scope of a horror film. For me, I felt that it worked especially considering what the Wendigo represents. I should note that there are subject matters dealing with sexual abuse that feature brief flashbacks to those events. Tackling the themes of abuse through a horror lens is one that I [mostly] appreciate, and using the Wendigo to parallel the corruptions of people was one that I found intriguing.
When it came to the acting, the standout performances were delivered by Keri Russell and Jeremy T. Thomas, with Thomas being the one to steal the show. Russell’s performance of Julia Meadows is, at times, flat, detached, and distant. She seems lost and alone. Russell’s performance presents what trauma feels like for some. However, when it comes to the safety of someone else, Julia’s instinct to protect comes fully into view and we see how she’s able to shift from merely existing to a protective presence. As for Jeremy T. Thomas, my god, what a performance. For his first role, I was blown away by the emotional depth he has and the ability to evoke such strong emotions from the audience. Say what you will about this movie but that kid is going places. As a fan of Jesse Plemons, I was excited he was in this film but I felt like his character, Julia’s brother and sheriff of the town, was underutilized, which is a shame since he’s such a powerful and memorable actor.
I can’t write this review without bringing up the Indigenous aspect of the film and its connection to the wendigo. For those not familiar, the Wendigo is a “mythological creature or evil spirit which originates from the folklore of First Nations…” The creature typically is known for possessing people and turning them into monstrous versions of themselves, mostly associated with greed and cannabilism. That being said, Director Scott Cooper worked with Director Chris Eyre who came on as a consultant for the film as well as Indigenous Nations consultant Grace L. Dillon. The team also made sure to work with as many experts and members of the Indigenous community as they could. That being said, I wish there had been more Indigenous actors involved instead of the sole onscreen representation being on First Nations actor, Graham Greene. Additionally, I think it would have been beneficial to the audience to have more time with Greene’s character, Warren Stokes, instead of him just having an expositional role that required him to explain the mythology of the Wendigo.
As for the Wendigo itself, the design and execution of it are breathtaking but, if we’re being honest here, I would expect nothing less from the monster lover himself, Guillermo del Toro. The creation of the Wendigo definitely pulled from nature and had a distorted feel of a tree coming to life. On top of that, throughout the majority of the film, we don’t even see the creature (but we sure see the carnage) unless it’s quick shots that are mostly covered by shadow. I’m a big fan of concealing a creature to not give too much away until the moment calls for it, if ever. Outside of the creature design, the film is visually stunning with cinematography by Florian Hoffmeister that showcases the stark beauty of the Oregon mountainside as well as the dense and lush forest surrounding the small town.
Even though the story loses itself a bit in the third act, mostly situated around decisions the main characters make leading up to the climax, the overall execution left me happy. Though I think it would have been better suited for an American Indian or First Nations director to tell this tale, I will give Scott Cooper the credit for doing his research, and working with the Indigenous community. Overall, ANTLERS is a brutal and disturbing tale that at times stumbles with its story but more than makes up for it with its creature design, visual style, and Jeremy T. Thomas’s performance. It’s not a happy film but, for me anyway, I was able to find a sliver of solace in it.
ANTLERS arrives in theaters tomorrow, October 29, 2021.
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