Once in a while I get excited for a film that seems to be a little thing, frightening and cynical in all the ways I desperately clung to during the last decade. I long for brighter moments, but the kid in me that delighted in the nastily contemplative ones still hopes to see something like that arise. When I hear Guillermo del Toro is producing a new film about Wendigos and frightened children that stars two of my favorite modern performers I get that twinge of excitement once more.
Antlers did not, sadly, scratch the itch I was hoping for.
Lucas Weaver (Jeremy T. Thomas) has a big problem. He’s bullied at school, looks like he hasn’t eaten in a week, and to top it all off he’s got to feed raw, bleeding flesh to the creepy creatures in his attic! When Julia Meadows (Keri Russell), his new teacher, notices signs of abuse she begins asking around about them. Her brother, Sherrif Paul Meadows (Jesse Plemons), urges her not to get involved after carelessly pointing out that she’s just projecting her own history of abuse onto this kid as an avenue to process trauma. She ignores him, of course, and what follows is a sweet story about a teacher that just wants to help a kid out of a nasty home life.
And cannibalism. Lots and lots of cannibalism.
Opening with quotes about how the anger of the Earth has awakened and constantly cutting to images of chopped-down trees doesn’t make for a strong message. We all had a good laugh when Trump began talking about Green Coal, but director Scott Cooper is asking us to think about how that hope and desperation affected small towns that have nothing else going for them outside of environmental destruction. Lucas’s father, Frank Weaver (Scott Haze), runs a meth lab out of the coal mine. That’s surely meant to signal us to something, right?
References to the opioid crisis and side-eye towards Trumpism don’t land the same in 2021 as it would have when this film was originally meant to come out. The film was scheduled for 2020 and would have felt slightly more relevant in 2018, but now it seems quaint and as though it missed its shot. These issues are compounded by the fact that the film’s script has a lot to say and is less interested in how to say it. Notes on environmental issues, climate change deniers, and the slow death of small-town America mean nothing because their ties to the onscreen creature don’t add up.
And that’s sort of the bind I’m in with Antlers, a film that has a lot to say but also wants to freak you out. The creature design is delightful, up there with other Wendigo-based stories like 2017’s The Ritual and 1989’s Stephen King adaptation Pet Sematary (and, sadly, its half-interesting 2019 remake). It’s spiky and covered in antlers, but it’s a process to get there. I’ve not seen an approach to this creature portrayed in this format before, and I have to take my hat off to Stan Winston Studio. Great creature effects are a dying art form, but once in a while they rear their delightfully ugly heads and let us see what monstrosities they’ve got to offer.
Perfectly matched with some of these onscreen practical effects are some pretty solid performances from Keri Russell and Jeremy T. Thomas. Russell is always a winner, having won my loyalty with her work on The Americans, so her wonderful performance here is no surprise. The big shock was Thomas, a fifteen-year-old that looks ten. Lanky and wide-eyed, he’s got a lot of energy that feels similar to that of the great Thomasin McKenzie onscreen. He channels a different kind of performance from that, delivering a frightened but steadfast character in Lucas. For one so young (and yet not as young as I thought), he holds himself well when up against other performers like Plemons or Russell. It helps that Plemons is off his game here, trying to muster something from his character and the relationship between the siblings, but he just can’t get there.
The other one that’s phoning in their performance is Javier Navarrete, composer for the film and a regular in Guillermo del Toro’s work. I say this with all the love I have for him in my heart, as he’s done several works I consider important, but with Antlers he’s found ground solely in atmosphere and horror cliches. Lots of eerie screeching and jump scare brass will leave most audiences getting that dopamine rush they came for, full of loud noises and stellar gore effects, but I’ve come to expect music that’s more alive from the Spaniard. It’s frustrating to listen to and yet I have to give him this – it does what it has to. That’s the bare minimum and he’s met it, avoiding something as offensive as Giacchino’s cloyingly referential work, but I wish there was more from him.
Antlers isn’t a bad film by any means. It would make a great date movie for most audiences that are into that sort of thing, offering a thoughtful idea that’s very loosely connected to the ugly reality of the film’s viscera. It’s not something I’ve any interest in revisiting soon, but I would absolutely recommend it to those wanting to see an eerie creature feature in their downtime.
Antlers is currently in theatres.