Antlers, which opened Friday only in theaters, is a dark, moody folk tale that takes its time immersing us in its world. Set in a small Oregon town that has been devastated by the loss of the coal mining industry and the proliferation of meth production, it is the rare horror movie where you care about the characters and the situation in which they find themselves. Despite a few plot holes and a couple of characters’ questionable actions, it is a satisfying horror experience.
This is a psychological creature feature that uses gore effectively and sparingly. I am a horror aficionado, and it takes a lot for a film to get me to jump. Antlers made me jump a couple of times. The film is more akin to an Ari Aster (Hereditary, Midsommer) film or a Brothers Grimm fairytale than a slasher movie. This is the type of movie where the horror is borne from trauma and may be an allegory for the devastation of addiction. The film deftly leaves its meaning up to the audience.
Technically, this is top-tier filmmaking. Director Scott Cooper artfully uses his superior cast. These are everyday people slowly coming to terms with the reality that the murders being committed in their town may be supernatural. Cinematographer, Florian Hoffmeister, uses muted color and shadows to build this world while filling it with dread and tension. The cast, led by Kerri Russell, Jesse Plemons and Jeremy T. Thomas, are all top-notch. Like Jaws, the killer appears sparingly. When the audience finally gets a good look at what is wreaking havoc, the design and execution are visceral and disturbing and do not disappoint. The screenplay by Henry Chaison, Nick Antosca and Scott Cooper deal with its supernatural material just as deftly as it deals with its character moments.
Antlers revolves around 12-year-old Lucus (Thomas). Their father, Frank (Scott Haze), and younger brother Aiden (Sawyer Jones) begin to drastically change after Frank moves his meth lab from a defunct coal mine scheduled to reopen. Locked in an upstairs bedroom of their home, Lucas’ father and brother must be fed. The pair can no longer stomach regular food. Lucas finds that killing small animals and throwing them into the room where his father and brother are now changing, both mentally and physically, is the only way to keep them satiated. After Lucas tells his class a horrible fairy tale, Lucus’ teacher, Julia (Russel), finds Lucas’ graphic drawings depicting a creature mutilating animals and people. Julia goes to Principal Booth (a criminally underused Amy Madigan), who promises to speak with Frank and find out what is going on. Julia feels a connection with Lucas, having also experienced abuse at the hands of her father. She left town and her younger brother (Plemons) long ago and just recently returned. She is determined to help Lucas by getting to the bottom of his drawings. From there, the story heads down an inevitable path that results in one of the most heartbreaking deaths in modern horror history.
This is a movie that wants to do more than scare you. It wants you to think about how trauma affects your life and what you would do to change your past sins. Russel gives a restrained, nuanced performance. It is suggested that she is fighting a dependency on alcohol due to her past trauma and leaving her younger brother to save herself. In a few short scenes, Russell conveys her fight with this demon beautifully. She has returned after her father’s death and is living with her brother in the home they grew up in and where, in a brilliant dialogue scene, it is revealed that they both suffered at their father’s hands. Plemons likewise gives an understated performance. Now the Sherriff of the town, he is trying to accept his sister back into his life while working through the pain she inflicted on him by her departure. The heart of Antlers is Lucas. Thomas, a performer wise beyond his years, plays a young boy whose mother is dead. All he has left is his father and younger brother. He will do almost anything to protect them, no matter what they become. His performance is heartbreaking. Never overdone, he shines in quiet moments. His big, expressive eyes say more than any dialogue could. Amy Madigan, Rory Cochrane and Graham Greene shine in supporting roles.
If you love tales by The Brothers Grimm, you may want to give Antlers a try.