A film about how the depths of terror come not from monsters lurking in the shadows but from the gradual decay of society around us, Antlers uncovers the degradation of our collective misery. Adapted from writer Nick Antosca's short story "The Quiet Boy," Antlers exposes the shortcomings of our institutions and the pain inflicted on those who slip through the cracks.
Set in the fictional Oregon town of Cispus Falls, the film grounds itself in Indigenous narratives that, unfortunately, are never fully developed to their full potential. It follows Keri Russell as Julia Meadows, a kindhearted school teacher who has returned home after escaping family trauma. She lives with her brother and frequently blundering sheriff of the town, Jesse Plemons' Paul, who just seems to make everything worse. This includes evicting a struggling family.
In that line of people being failed by those meant to help them, Julia begins to notice that her student Lucas Weaver (Jeremy T. Thomas) is having trouble in class. Lucas seems to have a rough home life, so she takes it upon herself to help him when no one else will. She soon realizes Lucas is hiding a dark secret behind a locked door at home that threatens to consume the entire town. The ensuing fight to stave off darkness is unsettling—and at its best—when focused on characters enduring a harsh world.
Though this film was not actually shot in Oregon at all (rather, it was filmed in British Columbia), the feel of an Oregon town is effectively captured. From the utter absence of opportunity to the lines of people seeking help, it’s clear that the community has been beaten down by a variety of forces. An opioid epidemic is positioned as the most clear culprit, though it extends beyond that to a larger systemic failing. There are countless people hurting because of addiction, a total lack of any hope for the future, the disproportionate rural impact of environmental catastrophe, or all of the above. There's even the faint echo on the radio that tells of the real-life horror of far-right violence in Portland.
Writer-director Scott Cooper portrays these issues with an eye for hauntingly gorgeous visuals that get into the darker corners of the town and our own psyche. When Julia first raises concerns about whether Lucas has enough family support, she is dismissed by both her school and her brother. Paul in particular says that his hands are tied, an excuse he conveniently didn’t offer when he evicts a family. He did this perhaps regretfully, though tellingly he still went through with it—a clear critique of how our police are more often harmful than helpful.
All of this speaks to a deeper pessimism about the rotting sickness at the core of modern life. Things are not just bad because our world is falling into chaos, but because there is an utter lack of urgency in helping those being harmed. No matter Antlers’ flaws, that is where the film is most incisive.
That being said, there are some moments that rely on rather shallow tropes and clichés that are hard to overlook. As Cooper tells it, his film follows “the Native American mythology of the Wendigo.” There was a clear desire to be respectful in the film’s portrayals of Indigenous stories by bringing in tribal consultants, including the director of the acclaimed 1998 film Smoke Signals, Chris Eyre. However, there remain some glaring narrative problems that undercut a well-intentioned story.
There are nine sovereign Native American nations located throughout Oregon, yet you wouldn't know that from watching Antlers. Except for a small role by legendary actor Graham Greene, who plays former sheriff Warren Stokes, there are no Indigenous characters in the film. Even when Greene appears on screen, he is relegated to just dispensing exposition in a manner that leaves his character feeling hollow. He instills these scenes with gravitas, but it’s regrettably fleeting.
By no means does this doom the film, which still has that strong core of genuine horror embedded throughout, though it does dull its impact. Horror films have long used Indigenous mythology as a surface-level way to introduce its central concept, and Antlers is by no means the worst offender. In fact, the early overtures that seemed to hint towards a deeper look at the area’s relationship to Indigenous people and their multiplicities of history only make it more disappointing when it falls into old tropes. It fell into the trap of using Indigenious stories for an aesthetic, rather than substance.
With all that said, there is still much to appreciate about Antlers. It offers a more complicated look at the horrors facing us all, sinking its teeth into the beating heart of our perilous existence. One scene in particular, where we see how the door that Lucas now guards came to be, is tragic in its execution while still being deeply unnerving. It’s also expertly acted, with Russell and Plemons in particular delicately hitting all the tricky tonal notes. Their relationship to each other is equally fraught, as they both have coped with family trauma by taking different paths.
Antlers acts most clearly as metaphorical horror, but it doesn’t skimp on any of the technical elements in its construction. The film’s produced by director and creature aficionado, Guillermo Del Toro, whose influence is felt in the commitment to well-crafted, often practical effects. This isn’t just in several of the gruesome moments that show the aftermath of sudden bursts of violence, but in the ending confrontation in particular.
Enveloped in darkness, the glimpses of the monster’s face are as striking as they are terrifying. When the monster itself is faced, the quieter moments of lingering fear will haunt us all as we reenter the real world where Antlers resonates.
You can see Antlers in theaters on October 29.