‘Antlers’ Review: Poignant Performances Can’t Save Scott Cooper’s Thematic Hodgepodge Of Dull Scares [Beyond Fest]

Oregon-set folk horror feature “Antlers,” finally being released after a long pandemic-induced delay, resembles what one might find in a rusty cauldron after a disorderly witch mixed an array of incongruent ingredients for a potion. Chunks of childhood trauma, a dash of the opioid crisis, a few drops of environmental distress, and Native American mythology swim together in a foggy concoction of a plot without meaningfully merging.

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Eclectically-inclined director Scott Cooper (“Crazy Heart,” “Out of the Furnace”)—with Mexican master of monsters Guillermo del Toro serving as producer— flails through this sporadically hair-rising but mostly dull genre proposition. His misguided ambition to graze multiple socially relevant subjects with the uncanny as a vessel, via the screenplay he co-wrote with Henry Chaisson and Nick Antosca, yields consistently unsatisfying results.

Julia (Keri Russell), back in a gloomy small-town living with her police officer brother Paul (Jesse Plemons), teaches middle school. Before we meet her, an epilogue has informed us that an unseen but presumably monstrous creature lurks in this isolated place. Worried about one of her students, 12-year-old Lucas (Jeremy T. Thomas), whose father has been known to make living cooking meth, she begins to get involved. Her motives surface in flashbacks: an educator that cares too much because she’s lived through parental abuse.

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At home, Lucas harbors a terrifying secret, which is the reason why no one has seen his father and younger brother for a while. Thomas turns in a poignant performance propelled by the heavy heart of a child whose dealings with neglect have morphed into supernatural torture seeing his loved ones suffer. Scenes between the young actor and a convincingly concerned Russell, and frankly far superior than the material, almost make one wish this had chosen to be a gritty drama focused on this parallel trauma—alas, that’s not the case.

In this, a hotchpotch of mismatched themes begins as an ode to storytelling and opens with what appears to be a warning from indigenous people about the pillaging of the land; the rundown locations of an environment in decay maintain an eerie atmosphere. Yet, the craft of German cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister feels underused in the film’s generic classroom compositions and standard lighting choices in Lucas’ home dark attic.

The forest isn’t a significant a presence as one would expect, but rather just a decorative setting that enables the filmmaker to somewhat feasibly make his variables coexist. It’s the cauldron where the manufacturing of illicit substances, the defacing of nature, and legend could happen. Once some gore has crossed our eyes and the inevitably digitally created creatures have revealed themselves, the story dives slightly deeper into the otherworldly origins of it all but ultimately remains uncommitted to it. 

Veteran indigenous actor Graham Greene has a small part to essentially tell the white people in the movie that even if they don’t believe in the ancestral yarns, the entities they describe can still come to mess with them. And so they do, but in uninspired jump scares.  One of them is repeated twice, in essentially the same setup, with different characters in what feels like a move to expedite the resolution without having to use a separate locale for the action. Elsewhere, the most unnerving scenes are those of Julia being startled as she is absorbed in her memories of mistreatment, which she can’ share with amicable Paul.

As the ordeal nears its final stages, Julia knows how to end the chaos and is forced to make a brutal decision while Luca’s brother Aiden (Sawyer Jones), who is innocent to the curse consuming him, resembles Santi, the ghostly boy from “The Devil’s Backbone.” Despite the muddled narrative tunnel we followed to get there, the scene does convey substantial emotional impact amid the embers of a spectral fire. If only the rest of the trek to defeat a sinister being had been as consistent in its proportions of pathos and lore.

Watching “Antlers,” one recognizes pieces that call to mind other horror escapades that took one of its concepts and fleshed it out to grand effect. “Let the Right One In,” “Border,” “Good Manners,” something as recent as the Icelandic horror drama “Lamb,” and a myriad of zombie movie plots where someone is trying to keep a family member alive and in chains though they know they likely won’t get better. Unable to find cohesion in its varying pursuits for significance, Cooper’s latest comes off derivative at best.  [D]

Antlers” made its world premiere at the Beyond Fest film festival.