There’s nothing quite like a decaying industrial town in the middle of a chilly, grey-skied fall to set an immediately gloomy mood in a film. Not that Scott Cooper’s “ Antlers ” needs any help in that department as it already deals with child abuse (sexual and psychological), poverty, bullying, hunger, sickness, generational trauma, environmental degradation and ancient native superstitions. Might as well just set it somewhere appropriately dreary as well, right? No one seems to ever smile in this Oregon town, even in line for the ice cream shop. Just to hammer the point home, a mournful piano and strings soundtrack overwhelms every frame. To quote Seymour Krelborn, it’s a place where “depression’s just status quo.”
But it gives you a good sense of what’s in store for the next 90 minutes. “Antlers” is not your typical horror movie. Most of the horrors here are the real ones (see the list above) — the ancient bloodthirsty creature is just the sideshow and it is a deathly slow burn in between the carnage. And despite the admirable ambitions and the prestigious names involved, including stars Keri Russell and Jesse Plemons as well as producer Guillermo Del Toro, it doesn’t really work either as metaphor or engaging, thought-provoking entertainment.
The conceit is that this beast has been unleashed because the world is rotting from within. One dad (Scott Haze) has an encounter in an abandoned mine shaft while his young son Aiden (Sawyer Jones) waits for him outside in the truck. The film leaves what happened in the mine ambiguous for quite some time, resting perhaps too much on the assumed suspense of the reveal. “Antlers” cuts to Aiden’s older brother Lucas (Jeremy T. Thomas), who is trying to go through the motions of daily life but is clearly disturbed and in need of help. It should be mentioned that if you have any squeamishness about seeing children in distress, know now that you should just avoid this film entirely, because it is relentless.
Russell’s Julia is Lucas’s middle school teach,er, who is conveniently teaching the students about myths when Lucas tells a particularly haunting and specific tale and she starts to worry about his well-being. She has her own demons ,too, and has reluctantly returned to Oregon to live with her brother Paul (Plemons) after their abusive father dies. This is the kind of film that doesn’t trust that the audience will figure out they’re brother and sister through context clues, but instead decides to make Paul call Julia “sis” the first time we meet him and never again. Yet somehow Plemons sells it and a few other clunkers, as only he can do: With innately natural, self-deprecating charm.
Julia’s interest in Lucas is not hard to unpack, considering her past where presumably no adult figures stepped in to help. The film piles depressing metaphor on top of depressing metaphor to its own detriment. Instead of making you think, it kind of just makes you scratch your head.
And of course things just continue getting more disturbing the more she digs into the home life of the Weavers, which sets off a series of ripple effects including unleashing the beast on the already blighted town and making her brother’s job more difficult. Russell sells her part, too, and is believable as a recovering alcoholic who is not at all over the traumas of her childhood.
But it’s hard to shake the feeling that the plot here came second to the idea and design of the beast, which, besides Plemons' heroic line delivery, is easily the best thing “Antlers” has going for it.
“Antlers,” a Searchlight release in theaters Friday, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for violence including gruesome images, and for language. Running time: 99 minutes. Two stars out of four.
MPAA Definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompany parent or adult guardian.
Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr