Antlers: Rubbed the Wrong Way, by David Bax
Scott Cooper’s Antlers starts off with an onscreen text prologue about indigenous people and their land, making it seem like it’s going to be a sort of companion piece to Cooper’s Hostiles, another well-meaning but painfully superficial and self-satisfied story involving Native Americans that positions them more as symbols than people. Opening in a makeshift meth lab in an abandoning mining tunnel, it would appear that Cooper has cast this country’s natives in the familiar role of analog for nature itself. In a way, it’s a relief when none of this turns out to be the real thematic thrust of the film but it’s also a confusing way to start a movie that seems more interested in the topics of abuse and generational trauma (and some opioid crisis thrown in for good measure). All of this is handled equally unsubtly, be assured. The obviousness of its messaging makes Antlers feel like an M. Night Shyamalan movie with all the fun parts removed.
Julia (Keri Russell) is a schoolteacher who has recently returned to the small town where she grew up and moved back into her childhood home with her brother, Paul (Jesse Plemons), the local sheriff. If you’re curious about the reason for her move, you won’t have to wait long to find out because, like every other pieces of Julia’s backstory, it is explained in clunky detail. When we first meet her, though, she’s teaching a middle school class in foreshadowing—or, technically, a class in cultural myths like the one that’s going to provide this horror flick with its monster. This one scene manages to borrow as much from Candyman as this year’s entire Candyman reboot did.
Even the bits of what we’ll charitably call character development that aren’t stated outright might as well be. I don’t know if recovering alcoholics actually do often find themselves staring longingly and wordlessly at liquor bottles and I don’t want to make light of the struggle to stay sober. But Cooper lingers so ominously on such shots that it feels like a joke.
In fact, lingering is a word that could describe almost every shot in Antlers. Now, “slow cinema” can offer wonders both meditative and ecstatic while “slow burn” horror is often praised by the genre’s sophisticates. But Antlers is neither of these. It’s just slow.
At this time, please allow me to take a moment here to focus on a pet peeve. The crux of the film is Julia’s concern for a troubled student (Jeremy T. Thomas) who she suspects might come from a neglectful, possibly physically abusive home. Of course, this is a scary movie, so the truth ends up being more horrific than she imagined. But what sticks in my craw is the film’s near-complete ignorance of the existence of social workers. Paul makes a passing reference to child protective services but the suspicions of Julia and, eventually, others are never brought to the attention of any trained responders. Julia’s actions become more egregious and irresponsible (which, to be fair, may be the point) as the story progresses to places I won’t spoil for you here. But there’s no acknowledgment of the fact that, as a public school teacher and thus a mandated reporter, those actions are also unprofessional and illegal.
Like I said, it’s a pet peeve and movies do it all the time but it’s too big a part of the narrative here to be overlooked. In any case, let me balance it out by ending with one nice thing about Antlers. The monster is really damned cool looking.