Scott Cooper does not make jolly films.
I figured this out when I first saw his last feature, Hostiles, an absolutely punishingly grim and totally brilliant neo-Western about the damage caused by the neccessities of masculinity placed on men in the Western genre. Going into Antlers, I wasn’t expecting a laugh riot, a knee-slapping, life-affirming montage of children running through corn fields, but damn – he really wanted to ruin my afternoon, didn’t he?
Antlers tells the story of a teacher (Keri Russell) moving back to her small town after the death of her abusive father, noticing what she percieves as signs of ongoing abuse in one of her students, Lucas. What she doesn’t know, though, is that Lucas is actually just trying to keep his younger brother and father alive as they grapple with a terrifying infection that’s far more dangerous that any of them could have known.
To cut to the chase and lightly spoil some of the plot, this is a Wendigo story, and honestly, it’s a slightly disappointing one on a few fronts. I mean, yes, the design of the Wendigo is gorgeous, the body-horror of its invasion into the forms of living people genuinely unsettling. But – okay, I wrote about Wendigos and their depiction in mainstream pop culture pretty recently in a review of a Supernatural episode about the very same, so maybe it’s just on my mind a bit, but Antlers let me down a bit in not really bothering to connect this story to the First Nations peoples it comes from. Yes, Graham Greene turns up briefly as a one-time mayor of the town and the only representative of First Nations people that we see in the film, but he’s really just there to exposite and wave his hands about spookily to tell the main characters what’s going on and then vanish again. I would have liked to see Scott Cooper delve into this a bit more, maybe draw on more of the mythology around those entities to deepen the themes that he was already working with, like addiction and substance abuse, as opposed to skinning the Wendigo of almost any cultural context.
Speaking of themes. I’ll be honest with you: horror as a genre was built to deal with trauma, both ongoing and in the past, and Antlers knows just how to use the tropes of the horror world to convey the depth of what Russell’s character and her brother (played by the inimitably fantastic Jesse Plemons) went through at the hands of their father. The way that Cooper conceptualizes this small, addiction-ridden town, and the house that Russell lives in and survived the abuse from her father in, it’s oppressive and controlling and crushingly intense. There’s no escape, for some people, from a certain kind of small community, and we’re seeing it through the eyes of someone who came back – if anything, through her adult eyes, the town is riddled with more horror that she could have imagined as a kid. It’s genuinely unsettling, and the sense of atmosphere and depth created with the direction and performances are downright excellent.
But there is hope here, despite it all. Russell’s attempts to rescue Lucas from his predicament, along with those slow, painful attempts to rebuild her shattered relationship with her younger brother point to some form of light at the end of the tunnel. Antlers is a very, very grim story, on a lot of levels, and the brilliant performances solidify this deep well of pain buried underneath almost all of the main characters here, but there is, in the final moments of the film, an attempt to turn up to catch the light. Scott Cooper doesn’t make jolly films, but I appreciate that Antlers doesn’t succumb to a totally pessimistic view of the characters it’s dealing with. It’s one thing to make miserable movies, and it’s another to make miserable movies that offer a little grace to the characters we’ve grown attached to, especially when handling themes as grim as this.
By Louise MacGregor
(header image via Variety)