Review: ‘Antlers’ (2021), starring Keri Russell, Jesse Plemons, Jeremy T. Thomas, Graham Greene, Scott Haze, Rory Cochrane and Amy Madigan

October 29, 2021

by Carla Hay

Jeremy T. Thomas and Keri Russell in “Antlers” (Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures)

“Antlers” (2021)

Directed by Scott Cooper

Culture Representation: Taking place in Cispus Falls, Oregon, the horror film “Antlers” feature a nearly all-white cast of characters (with a few Native Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A schoolteacher finds out that a 12-year-old student in her class is hiding a horrible secret.

Culture Audience: “Antlers” will appeal primarily to people interested in horror movies that are about how damage to Earth’s environment can have terrifying consequences.

Jesse Plemmons, Jeremy T. Thomas and Keri Russell in “Antlers” (Photo courtesy of Searchlight Pictures)

More than the typical “creature on the loose” horror movie, “Antlers” tells a haunting yet somewhat sluggish story about how a decaying environment can wreak havoc if the problem is ignored. The dangers of this denial of also run deep in the movie’s human relationships that are plagued by abuse and neglect. The movie falls into some very predictable and repetitive traps, but there’s enough suspense in “Antlers” to hold most people’s interest.

Scott Cooper, a filmmaker known for his outlaw-inspired movies about troubled loners (such as 2009’s “Crazy Heart,” and 2015’s “Black Mass”) directed “Antlers” and co-wrote the movie’s screenplay with Henry Chaisson and Nick Antosca. The screenplay is based on Antosca’s 2019 short story “The Quiet Boy.” Guillermo del Toro is one of the producers of “Antlers,” so you know it’s going to be some kind of story involving a mysterious creature hiding among humans. Cooper is also one of the producers of “Antlers.”

The reason why this movie is called “Antlers” is revealed about halfway through the film, which takes place in the small town of Cispus Falls, Oregon. And once this information is disclosed to viewers, the movie just becomes a countdown to when certain people in this small town will find out the secret that a mysterious killer beast is living among them. The fact that “Antlers” is about some kind of deadly monster is part of this movie’s marketing, which includes movie trailers that already showed flashes of this creature. What’s revealed when watching the movie is how the monster ended up this way, why the creature is in this small town, and how this beast has been able to hide.

Fortunately, “Antlers” doesn’t take a stereotypical “slasher flick” route of of just being scene after scene of generic people getting killed. The movie takes its time to let viewers know the main characters of the story. “Antlers” has some not-so-subtle messages about the dangers of polluting the environment. But the movie also has depressing observations about how easily children can be neglected and/or abused, as well as how that trauma can be passed down through generations.

“Antlers” opens with a scene of two grungy-looking men in an abandoned mine shaft. Their names are Frank Weaver (played by Scott Haze) and Kenny Glass (played by Michael Eklund), and they have the type of dirty and disheveled appearance of people who’ve haven’t slept or cleaned themselves in at least a few days. Frank has left his 7-year-old son Aiden Weaver (played by Sawyer Jones) in Frank’s truck outside and ordered Aiden to stay there. He tells Aiden that he has to do some work and that it’s no place for kids.

If this sounds like Frank and Kenny are involved in drugs, it’s because they are. They’re both using the mine shaft as their meth lab. But their meth cooking is about to be interrupted by a mysterious creature that attacks them. After some time has passed, Aiden becomes restless and curious to find out what’s taking his father so long. He goes into the mine shaft and then movie abruptly cuts to the next scene.

Julia Meadows (played by Keri Russell), a bachelorette in her 40s, has recently moved back into the area (Cispus Falls is her hometown) after living in California for 15 years. She works as a teacher at the local middle school. Her younger brother Paul Meadows (played by Jesse Plemons), who is in his 30s, is the sheriff of Cispus Falls. Just like his sister Julia, Paul is single with no children.

It’s eventually revealed in the movie that Paul and Julia have had a somewhat strained relationship because she abruptly moved away from this hometown. Paul felt abandoned by his older sister. And there are still bitter feelings between both siblings for why they became estranged.

In one scene, Paul and Julia have a brief heart-to-heart talk about it. Julia tells Paul about her feelings of guilt about this long exit from his life: “Just know that I have spent my entire life trying to deal with leaving you.” Julia also says that she would understand if Paul still resents her, but she couldn’t stay in their family household anymore.

Paul seems to understand but he also wants it known how Julia’s departure hurt him. “I spent my entire praying that you’d come back,” he tells her. What caused this family rift? It’s shown in nightmares that Julia has that she and Paul had an abusive father (played by Andy Thompson), who is now deceased. One of the flashbacks (with Katelyn Peterson as an adolescent Julia) makes it clear without showing anything too explicit that Julia’s father was a deeply troubled man who sexually abused her. The mother of Paul and Julia is also dead, and it’s unknown how much she knew about this abuse.

In her classroom, Julia is frustrated because her students don’t seem to be connecting with her. The kids seem bored or unimpressed with her style of teaching. At this point in the cirriculum, she is teaching them about folklore and fables. Julia asks for the students to volunteer what they know about these types of stories that can be centuries old.

Eventually, Julia finds out that a quiet and shy 12-year-old boy in her class named Lucas Weaver (played by Jeremy T. Thomas) has been drawing some disturbing images in his notebook. The illustrations include demon-like animal figures in the woods. Does one of the creatures have antlers? Of course it does.

One day, Julia asks Lucas to tell her and the classroom of students what’s the story behind one of the drawings. Lucas then tells a creepy tale of a little bear that lives with a big bear and a small bear that are different because the big bear and small bear are always hungry. Based on the reactions by the other students in the class, Lucas is now perceived as even more of a “freak” who is a social outcast at the school.

Even before Lucas told this story, he was being bullied at school by some other boys. The leader of the bullies is a mean-spirited brat named Clint Owens (played by Cody Davis), who gets his comeuppance when Lucas puts dog excrement in Clint’s backpack for revenge. It sets off a feud between the Clint and Lucas. And if you know how horror stories like this usually go, things will not end well for one of these boys.

In the meantime, Julie notices that Lucas looks pale and undernourished. She gently and tactfully tries to find out from Lucas what his home life is like. The only thing that Lucas will tell her is that his mother is dead, and that his 7-year-old bother Aiden is homeschooled. Lucas resists Julie’s attempts to befriend him. Julie feels like she can relate to Lucas, because they are both treated like outsiders at the school.

Julie takes her concerns about Lucas to her boss, Principal Ellen Booth (played by Amy Madigan), who seems distracted and very reluctant to get involved. Principal Booth tells Julie that after Lucas’ mother died of a drug overdose, child protective services investigated suspicions that the Weaver household was abusive, but CPS didn’t find enough evidence to warrant taking the children away from the home. And so, Frank Weaver was allowed to keep custody of Aiden and Lucas. Principal Booth promises Julie that she will stop by the Weaver household in the near future to check up on the children.

Cispus Falls has been on an economic decline for years. And it’s been made worse by the opioid crisis and meth epidemic that have ravaged Cispus Falls and its surrounding areas. However, the drug-related crimes that have been plaguing the community somewhat pale in comparison to the murders that have suddenly begun to happen in Cispus Falls: Mutilated bodies, including one of the meth lab men from the opening scene, are being discovered in the town’s wooded area.

Paul and his small team of police officers begin to suspect that a people-killing wild animal is on the loose. But there are many signs that this is no ordinary animal. Footprints indicate that this creature can walk upright. And the bite marks are unlike anything that the local forensic pathologist has ever seen.

There are some supporting characters in “Antlers” that are quite formulaic. Rory Cochrane portrays Daniel Lecroy, one of the cops on the Cispus Falls police force. Grahame Greene is Warren Stokes, a stereotypical elder resident of the town who seems to know everyone’s business and the town’s history. Warren is also the one who talks about the Native American folk tales that offer clues into the mystery behind the creature.

Between the disturbing drawings made by Lucas and the discovery of the mutilated bodies, it doesn’t ake a genius to figure out what’s going on. Julie does her own investigating, and Paul eventually finds out what she’s learned. Therefore, the main suspense in the story comes from wondering who’s going to die and who’s going to survive.

The bond that Julia tries to form with Lucas runs almost parallel to her trying to heal her fractured relationship with her brother Paul. There’s an underlying message of how children with dysfunctional or absentee parents can often find strength and support with each other if they don’t put up too many emotional barriers. Lucas’ plight becomes very personal to Julia. She feels like she wants to “save” Lucas because she knows what it’s like to be a kid who needed help but no one was there to save or protect her.

As expected, the creature’s full physical appearance is eventually shown in the movie. These scenes with the monster attacks should bring enough chills to horror audiences, but “Antlers” ultimately does nothing groundbreaking with how this creature looks or acts. (Dorian Kingi portrays the antlered monster.) The movie doesn’t over-rely on CGI visual effects for gimmicks, but it does rely on a suspension of disbelief that all the mayhem the creature causes wouldn’t eventually be noticed by more people and would eventually make big news. For example, if this situation happened in real life, it would need more than a small-town police department to handle it.

An argument could be made that “Antlers” should have been a short film. And there’s some validity to the argument, since the movie tends to drag for long stretches to an inevitable conclusion. However, the principal cast members’ performances serve the story in a competent way. No one is a bad actor here, but no one is outstanding either.

One of the big issues that “Antler” doesn’t address adequately is how Lucas has been able to keep his big secret for as long as he has without raising suspicions sooner. However, it might be the movie’s way of showing how abuse and neglect of children can happen in plain sight and nothing is really done about it. People (such as Principal Booth) who should be mindful of the warning signs sometimes prefer to deny that there’s a problem and make any excuse they can to avoid getting involved. In that respect, you don’t need an antlered monster to know that these real-life tragedies are their own horror stories.

Searchlight Pictures released “Antlers” in U.S. cinemas on October 29, 2021.