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Antlers

Antlers comes to us from director/co-writer Scott Cooper. If that name sounds vaguely familiar, this is the guy who made a huge Oscar-worthy splash with his directorial debut on Crazy Heart (in fact, that movie won two Oscars out of three nominations) and made basically nothing of note afterwards. The film is adapted from a short story by Nick Antosca, also a co-writer on this project, though he’s better known for his exec-producing work on “Brand New Cherry Flavor” on Netflix and the recent Chucky TV continuation.

Based solely on these creative voices, there’s not much here to recommend it. But no, this is a monster horror film exec-produced by Guillermo del Toro, so here we are.

The film opens in a small Oregon coal mining town, and I immediately called bullshit. Unless they’re pulling hazelnuts, truffles, or lumber out of those mines, this movie is definitely set in the wrong state. But I looked it up, and it turns out that there are indeed six coal mining leases here in Oregon. At an educated guess, we’re probably looking at Scotts Mills, a podunk town deep in the heart of Marion County. Not that the town is ever explicitly named in the movie. And the film was actually shot in British Columbia. I digress.

ANYWAY, our stage is set in a tiny little rural town that the greater outside world knows and cares nothing about. The local workers have been decimated by black lung, the local coal mine has been shut down for however long, and the town’s economy was in bad enough shape when the mine was operational. Everybody’s going broke and there are precious few ways to make a decent living, except for selling illegal narcotics to people who probably don’t care if they live or die in any case.

Enter Frank Weaver (Scott Haze), the widowed father of two young boys (Lucas and Aiden, respectively played by Jeremy T. Thomas and Sawyer Jones). Frank has a long rap sheet and a history of drug abuse, but he always seems to avoid prison time because the local bureaucrats wouldn’t have any idea what to do with his sons. I might add that Frank takes Aiden — his youngest son — with him to serve as a lookout while Frank goes to check on his meth lab in the abandoned coal mine, so it’s not like he was Father of the Year at the best of times.

Long story short, the plot picks up when Frank is attacked by something in the mines. Cut to some unspecified amount of time later, and we eventually see that Frank has been transformed into some kind of horrific flesh-eating monster. He’s locked away with Aiden, who seems to be afflicted with some similar condition, but he’s got more of his humanity left.

That just leaves Lucas, who spends most of his spare time hunting animals and cutting up carrion for his monstrous relatives. Every waking moment (and more than a few sleeping moments, in all probability) is spent worrying about his malformed father, to the point where he has no friends and he barely seems to eat anything for himself. Not like there would be much of anything to do in this backwater town anyway, but still. Lucas clearly needs help, but of course none of his classmates will help him and all the overworked, underpaid adults are determined to look the other way.

Enter Julia and Paul Meadows (respectively played by Keri Russell and Jesse Plemons), a pair of siblings born to a horribly abusive father. (Their mother has been safely dead since Julia was 12, by the way.) To make another long story short, Paul grew up in the family home and stayed there to look after his dad until he finally died. Julia ran away to California at the first opportunity, and only recently moved back home after her father had killed himself.

This means that Julia knew perfectly well — from excessive firsthand experience! — that she was leaving her little brother alone and defenseless with a domestic abuser for however many decades. Paul keeps insisting that he doesn’t begrudge her that, and his forgiveness does appear genuine, but Paul himself is quick to point out that doesn’t mean she has any idea what their dad put him through during that time.

Anyway, Paul is now the local sheriff, only recently and grudgingly elected after the previous sheriff (Warren Stokes, played by reliable indigenous character actor Graham Greene of the Oneida tribe) retired and nobody else wanted to take the job. Meanwhile, Julia has settled in as the newest teacher of the local elementary school. She quickly notices that something seems to be wrong with Lucas and we’re off to the races.

In case the promos weren’t enough to give it away, this is a monster movie centered around the mythical wendigo. As explained by Sheriff Stokes (Ret.), the wendigo is a flesh-eating creature of infinite hunger. The more it eats, the more it wants. The film initially sets up the wendigo as an environmental allegory (which could certainly be quite fitting), but it turns into something much deeper and more emotionally potent as the film unfolds.

A great deal of runtime is spent establishing parallels between Lucas and Julia. Both products of broken homes and abusive fathers, both carrying acres of scars from physical and emotional trauma. Of course it makes all kinds of sense that Julia would see herself in this young boy, as the one person in the entire county who is pathologically incapable of ignoring the signs and symptoms that she knows all too well from firsthand experience.

Perhaps more importantly, Julia took the step of disowning her father, recognizing that he was beyond help and running away. Compare that to Lucas (and Paul, for that matter), who sacrifices so much of himself out of debt to his ailing blood relative. This is never more painfully clear than in the third act, when Lucas insists that his loved ones are just temporarily sick; they’ll love him so long as he keeps feeding them; they’ll get better eventually; and so on. Lucas is actively keeping himself in denial, and it’s hard to blame the kid when the alternative means losing the only family he’s got left. Sure, his life sucks now, but could the dispassionate and overburdened bureaucracy of the outside world really offer him anything better?

In summary, the wendigo’s bottomless hunger is here used as an allegory for a toxic relationship. It’s a thing that takes and takes and takes, while offering nothing in return. It may come disguised as genuine love, it may even be borne of genuine love from all parties, but the love only truly goes one way. It is purely and totally destructive, with only the flimsiest promise of anything constructive, if that. And the allegory hits so much harder because this is about a boy’s father — his own flesh and blood, his own dedicated caregiver, perhaps the last living adult who ever showed him any honest and open affection — as opposed to somebody’s partner/spouse/etc.

It’s a heartfelt and creatively elegant allegory… right up until the ending. See, the central moral of this particular fable is in the recognition of when a relationship has become so toxic that one party must cut the other out of their life, rather than waste time and effort in fixing something that will always be broken. Lucas has to let go of his father in a metaphorical sense. And here, that means killing him in a literal sense. Don’t know that I’m comfortable with calling that a positive message.

More importantly, the horror element kinda sucks. Every kill was telegraphed at least ten minutes in advance, and the kills themselves are woefully bland. Even the big climactic action scene is sadly underwhelming. But on the other hand, we’ve got Exec Producer Guillermo del Toro’s penchant for spellbinding monsters and his uncanny ability to elicit sympathy for them without excusing or trivializing their horrific nature, and that goes a long way here. I must also commend cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister — even if the scares and action scenes are uninspired, at least Hoffmeister and Cooper shot them beautifully.

The other big problem is Jeremy T. Thomas, who isn’t anywhere strong or versatile enough to carry the lead performance here. I honestly found Sawyer Jones more compelling, to the point where I wished the two could’ve traded roles. Not that Thomas is necessarily awful (especially not by the standards of most child actors), but he’s nowhere near ready for primetime yet and that’s what this role needed.

Luckily, Thomas spends most of the film opposite Keri Russell, and she’s acting her ass off here. She totally sells the film’s “domestic abuse” angle, sparing no effort in making sure we understand the sheer scope and depth of the character’s past traumas. Even if the exact nature of her father’s abuse is left frustratingly unclear, we know perfectly well how Julie feels about those past traumas, and that’s apparently more than enough for Russell to work with.

As for Jesse Plemons, he’s reliably settled into his position as a journeyman supporting player. I don’t think he’s ever going to be a leading man, but he once again proves here — as he so often has — that you can always count on him to move the story along and make the leads look good.

Antlers is one of those frustrating films that I respect far more than I like. The central idea of a domestic abuse story with a monster horror hook is a compelling notion, and a lot of heartfelt effort was put into the film’s messages on the subject. Still, the film works much better as a drama than a horror film, and it’s often hard to get past the young lead’s deficiencies. Though Jeremy T. Thomas has a rock-solid acting partner in Keri Russell, enough to keep Thomas’ slightly subpar performance from being a dealbreaker.

It’s a brilliant idea with a flawed execution, but it still works inasmuch as the point is certainly made. It also helps that at 99 minutes, the film doesn’t overstay its welcome. Weighing the film’s quality against the massive deluge of films hitting multiplexes in these last three months of the year, I’m giving this one a solid home video recommendation.

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