Scott Cooper’s first romance with horror bears resemblance to his gritty mob films, with disturbing supernatural elements that will appeal to genre fans. Antlers (2021) is also busy with many topics on its plate, some of which feel largely underdeveloped.
If I was to conclude this review in one sentence, I’d say that Scott Cooper’s Antlers (2021) mimics David Bruckner’s The Ritual (2017) in almost every aspect, although it still figures its own way of fear-inducing terrors that interlock with its psychological horror lining. Suffice to say, there are differences between the two films, but if into the TL;DR movement, that’s pretty much your answer to whether you should watch this film or not.
For those craving a bit more detail though, the central figure of Antlers (2021) is Lucas (Jeremy T. Thomas), a 12-years old kid. Contrary to many of his peers, Lucas doesn’t live a bucolic life with two loving parents. In fact, the last three weeks were everything but that. That is when Lucas’ father Frank (Scott Haze) was about to wrap up his meth lab in a cave, alas a blood-crazed creature messed up this plan – and Frank too. What follows is an unprecedented curse that forces Lucas to search for roadkill, and dead animals to satisfy the hunger of the creature his father’s turning into.
The kid’s eyes-nailed-to-the-floor, waif-like look picks the attention of his teacher, Julia (Keri Russell). A victim of abuse herself, Julia takes on the crusade against the wrongdoers. There are other issues she’s dealing with -like her own ghastly memories of the house she returned to after decades. With the help of her brother – sheriff Paul (Jesse Plemons) – Julia loses herself in the rescue mission, partially to wipe her own trauma.
Cooper’s films often circle around topics of extreme violence and a kind of paralyzing helplessness that tags along. Out of the Furnace (2013) marked the director’s darkest, most visceral aesthetics and for some viewers, the star-studded revenge thriller was too much to handle. The recurring theme of gratuitous violence as an inseparable part of men’s world appeared in Hostiles (2017), and – to some degree – in The Black Mass (2015) too. While violence fills Antlers (2021) to the brim, the director keeps it at bay as a description of Lucas’ reality. It never takes the steering wheel. Sure, many images are designed to haunt, however, Cooper’s more concerned about the dramatic impact of the story.
That really fits the trend of psychological horrors that use gore and violence only as stylistic measures. If made back in the early 2000s, Antlers (2021) would be as thought-provoking as House of Wax (2005). Thankfully, it’s the woke 2021, and that won’t slide for a horror marketed as arthouse. Nonetheless, in the case of Antlers (2021), the dramatic spine has its pains. The script, written by Henry Chaisson, Nick Antosca, and Scott Cooper, tends to reveal key facts about the characters in between the lines (like the conversation which reveals Lucas’ marks of abuse), and in a fleeting manner. If you miss those details, the plot will seem to have holes in it.
While I’m all for reducing exposition to bare minimum, Cooper incorporates extreme measures. This concerns mainly Keri Russell’s character, Julia. The teacher’s backstory – hinted only through symbolical flashbacks – connects her with Lucas with a weak link. It gets even more opaque once the traumatic past begins to include Paul, dragging us into mysterious lines such as “you don’t know what he did to me“. And yes, Cooper’s whole film puts images in our heads, and that’s a powerful thing. But shedding a bit more light on these characters would make them look more relatable.
In the meantime, the script sketches a portrayal of small-town America, with its deeply-rooted disdain towards the indigenous people and their beliefs. Cooper & Co. also establish the eco-horror theme, seeing the spine-chilling monster as nature’s response to humanity’s wrongdoing. On top of it all, the ongoing abuse and child mistreatment make up for a film that wants to hit too many birds with one stone.
Although the story falters, there’s no dispute over the gears responsible for Lucas. Jeremy T. Thomas astonishes with this palpable exposition of suppressed pain, showing the burden weighing heavier and heavier on the kid’s rachitic shoulders. Cooper’s lucky to have such a young, rough diamond on board, however, it’s his mature direction that cements the role of Thomas. Decent turns come from Jesse Plemons and Keri Russell, although the show belongs to both Thomas and Scott Haze.
Scott Haze deserves praise for the body transformation that creeps under your skin and puts to test the toughest viewers. Every appearance of his leaves a lasting, uncomfortable impression, with a nightmarish sequence of his transformation that brings to mind the Gollum’s one (but in hardcore mode). Since much of the film’s first half focuses on Haze’s locked-up monstrosity, and Lucas’ feeding routines, that creates some of the most disturbing images of this year. Moreover, it’s the consistently bleak, ominously dark shots of both Oregon landscapes and house interiors that amplify the grisly aura.
Cooper also finds innovative ways to serve jump scares – like a camera flash that reveals a brutalized corpse surrounded by the shroud of darkness. That nicely ties with same tricks used by Ari Aster in Midsommar (2019), where such gimmicks amp up the tension. There are snaps that feel genuinely terrifying, and you can almost smell the stench of dismembered bodies that pile up. On top of that comes the design of the Windigo that, this time again, reminds of Moder – the creature that appeared in The Ritual (2017). The creature’s sparsely seen, although when Cooper reaches for it, he never misses the right beat.
After a bumpy but gripping build-up, major problems resurface in the third act of Antlers (2021). It’s as if the film’s budget’s gone AWOL, and the whole crew – with writers on top of that – were forced to wrap up. The conclusion feels rushed, and also, quite unfulfilling. As a stranger to Nick Antosca’s original short story that’s been the baseline for the script, I can only say that the entire story would work better if the ending wasn’t taken so verbatim.
All in all, Antlers (2021) still establishes Scott Cooper as another name to watch in the horror world. With enough gritty moments, bloody gore and drama that binds all of the other elements together, Antlers (2021) deserves a mention among the top nightmare fuels of the year.