Antlers is a highly unnerving creature film with an important message about child abuse. Based on Nick Antosca’s short story, the film is a relentless slow burn with a superb creature design. It may take itself too seriously, but it’s executed tremendously for the first two acts. After spending many moments building up intrigue and tension, Antlers does lose some steam during the third act. This doesn’t erase the brilliance of those first two acts, which makes Antlers worth checking out.
Working as an allegory for abuse, Antlers provides the perfect setup for viewers to grow attached to the characters on screen. The film’s downtrodden landscape aids in maximizing the emotional angst portrayed by its characters. Director Scott Cooper relies on the surroundings to create this never-ending claustrophobic feeling. Antlers is brought to life through terrific performances from Keri Russell, Jesse Plemons, Jeremy Thomas, Scott Haze, Amy Madigan, and Graham Greene.
Cooper collaborated with Antosca on this chilling screenplay and Cooper translates it into a methodical creature film for the screen. The film centers on Julia Meadows (Russell), a teacher who has recently returned to her hometown. She becomes increasingly concerned for her student, Lucas Weaver (Thomas). Lucas has been displaying signs of abuse, and Julia’s traumatic past makes her desperate to help her student. However, Lucas is secretly keeping a supernatural creature inside his house. The torment Lucas endures at home and school makes him likable early on.
Lucas is bullied at school and then goes home to a life no child deserves to live. Very few resources are available, he’s visibly unclean, and it’s as if no one lives there. Of course, he’s keeping a massive secret in his upstairs attic that will torment the entire town. The dynamic between Julia and Lucas acts as Antlers heart, her determination to save Lucas makes her easy to get behind. Initially, Lucas is hesitant to tell Julia the truth. He understands that telling would mean an uncertain future for him at home. Julia resides with her brother Paul (Plemmons), the local sheriff, and they both share a traumatic experience that has crippled their bond as siblings.
This exploration of generational trauma and cycles of abuse makes Antlers fun to experience and the atmospheric dread that lingers in each shot amplifies the film’s themes. Building towards the creature reveal also kept the film intriguing and shows Cooper knows how to keep the audience invested. It was a solid setup with a tremendous payoff, and Cooper keeps the creature terrorizing Lucas shrouded in darkness. Towards the end, unnecessary exposition dumping takes place to confirm what was already being made obvious.
Antlers is tackling the wendigo folk tale and the subtle approach was relinquished in favor of exposition dumping. The methodical unease felt early on grows into a thrilling final confrontation with the wendigo. How it’s defeated is severely underwhelming and made the creature appear less menacing. Aside from that, Russell and Thomas are very convincing in their roles. Thomas delivers one of the best child performances this year, and Russell is mesmerizing as this rightfully concerned teacher with a troubling past.
Cooper keeps the tension consistent, never letting up, but allows the unease to grow with each new revelation surrounding Lucas’ horrific life at home. One scene in Lucas’ attic involves an intense body contortion that will send chills down your spine. The bone-chilling score from Javier Navarrete acts as an ominous force ringing throughout each scene. The film’s pacing never grows dull, and the methodical approach allows enough time to become attached and invested in its narrative.
Antlers is an effective creature film that may have a rocky finish, but the events leading up to its satisfying end solidify it as a good film. Wendigo horror isn’t breaking new ground, so I can see why some may think the film takes itself too serious. Antlers should make for a fun watch this Halloween season when it arrives this weekend.