Artful monster movies seem to be all the rage these days…
Be it a black coated Babadook launching an all out attack on a woman struggling to bond with her weird-ass child, to the spindly, sightless creatures from A Quiet Place violently bugging the family of Jim from The Office, monstrous metaphors seem to be a big thing in genre, which is something I’m all for. After all, if movies featuring creeping beasties and inhuman predators keep focusing as much on ideas as they do having them tear various slow moving humans to sheds then it’ll attract interesting names to the genre who can hopefully bring something new to the familiar carnage.
Step up director Scott Cooper – previously known for helming Crazy Heart and focusing on an entirely different kind of monster with Black Mass’ Whitey Bulger – who throws his hat into realm of the creature feature with the dark, thoughtful and gruesome Antlers; but does this tale mixing native legends with the spectre of child abuse manage to find the right balance?
In a small town in Oregon, local teacher Julia Medows notices that the weird kid in her class has gotten progressively weirder and correctly surmises that there very well be trouble at home. Said weird kid is Lucas Weaver, a hollow-eyed introvert who is hiding a horrific secret in relation to his meth lab owning father who, after a run in with a mysterious thing in the mine where he was running his operations, has gotten violently sick. However, we’re not talking man-flu and a dose of the shits here, no, whatever Lucas’ father has it seems to be changing him violently into something else and worse yet, a similar malady seems to have infected Lucas’ seven year old brother too and the young boy struggles to keep them contained while feeding them roadkill he finds on the way home from school.
Noticing all the subconscious cries for help Lucas is putting out, Julia takes it upon herself to try and find out what is going on with the insular child mainly due to the fact that she herself came from an abusive household, but when Lucas’ father escapes from his makeshift prison and apparently morphs into whatever his final form is, chewed up bodies start becoming a regular sight for Julia’s brother Paul, the town sheriff who is increasingly unsure as how to proceed.
Soon the concept of the Wendigo is banded about, a Native American legend about an angry spirit cursed to continually hunger for human flesh that inhabits and transforms the body of mortal men – but is that really what is happening here? Either way, if Julia really wants to take custody of Lucas to keep him safe then she’s going to have to fight to the death for him against something that literally eats people for breakfast…
Antlers carries some weighty themes on its shoulders right from the get-go as it merges its plot of some mythical monster mayhem with the more sobering subject of child abuse as it proceeds on his slow burning, brooding path. It’s an impressive juggling attempt and Cooper almost nails it but fails to marry its themes together in a satisfying way that ultimately runs out of ideas by the final act. However, that’s not to say that Antlers is a failure – far from it, thanks to the movie containing more than enough plus points to keep you hooked, even when it slips into becoming a more familiar creature feature while only yards from the finish line.
So what are those plus points, then: well, for a start we have a riveting central performance from Keri Russell as the damaged teacher who takes it upon herself to try and save a child who’s abusive father’s issues go far beyond quick fists and a quick temper. However, she’s blown off the screen by the work of child actor Jeremy T. Thomas as the almost feral looking Jacob who is the glue that holds the majority of the film together. With his thousand yard stare enimating from alarmingly sunken eyeballs and his used clothes hanging off his hunched over frame, his traumatic plot of desperately trying to care for a father who is rapidly transforming into something that has an unhealthy appetite for human flesh makes the little fella the crown jewel of the entire movie. He certainly makes more of an impact than Jesse Plemons’ typically sad sack sheriff, but to be fair everyone more than pulls their weight in the acting stakes.
So with the acting taken care of, it’s over to the monstrous end of the film and the utilising of the legend of the Wendigo work really well as the lush cinematography make Oregon a mist coated, damp, alien landscape makes it a prime location for the large, gut crunching beast that stalks the movie. The creature stuff is actually suitably brutal and the film isn’t afraid to show the geuesome handiwork of the large, spikey predator who boasts a legitimately cool design – so the actors and the monster both hit the necessary beats; so that leaves the tone and plot.
The tone of the film is suitably broody and grim with the whole town reeling from poverty and numerous folk – including Jacob’s dad – resorting to making meth in order to pay the bills and put food on the table, but where Antlers stumbles is trying to put it all together and the plot audibly groans under the pressure at points in order to make the different components fit together.
It ultimately does this by cutting corners from time to time, forsaking it’s big ideas in favour for overused monster movie tropes in order to force things into a familiar resolution and pushing not only it’s usually intelligent characters but also the monster itself into convenient scenarios in order to hammer out a Ripley-from-Aliens-style final act showdown. Also not helping matters is the fact that if often feels very similar to Andrés Muschietti’s Mama which also contained a monsters-as-parents premise.
None of this is to say that Antlers is a bad film, it isn’t and is really worth seeking out, but its inability to marry up it’s big ideas to a plot that often take the easy way out feels like a missed opportunity and causes it to narrowly miss out on earning and extra star. Still, I’d never slam a guy for trying, and Cooper gets maddeningly close to making a creature feature that’s legitimately different with a magnificent design for its main beast, but once too often it falls back on familiar cliches whenever the story writes itself into a corner.
Maybe I’m being too hard on it, but Antlers had the potential to be an utter beast.