From the moment the lights go down in the theater to the moment the final credits begin to roll, you will know that you are watching a masterful piece of visual storytelling with Scott Cooper’s Antlers, despite a few shortcomings on the scripting side. But damn, if this film isn’t so nice to look at that some thinly drawn characters wasn’t enough to hamper my enjoyment of the movie.

Antlers is set in a small mining town in Oregon that has seen better days. The mine’s shut down, half the citizenry is either on drugs or trying to kick them, and now there’s an ancient nature spirit angry and ready to punish everyone. Our main characters, Julia (Keri Russell) and Paul Meadows (Jesse Plemons) are our eyes and ears. Julia is just back in town after running away to California twenty years earlier to escape an abusing father, and her brother Paul is the reluctant Sheriff in a town where nothing more dangerous than drug overdoses usually occur.

There’s a subtle tension between the two that never gets fully explored, and I was hoping to see a little more of Paul’s backstory. I mean, what happens when one abandons one’s younger sibling to a life with a predatory father? There’s a moment where we almost get some insight there, but the characters are too scarred by the physical and psychological horrors of their pasts to really dig into the emotions and instead we move on to the supernatural horrors promised by producer Guillermo del Toro.

And the horrors are pretty visceral.

Playing on folklore about the Wendigo (as explained in an info dump by veteran actor Graham Greene before he disappears from the film entirely), Antlers does a fine job building up the tension and amping up the gore before our creature explosively enters the feature. Frank Weaver (Scott Haze) is a tweaker who is infected by the spirit of the Wendigo in the opening minutes of the film, as is, unfortunately, his youngest son Aiden (Sawyer Jones). Those opening minutes are extremely effective as Cooper and cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister excel at utilizing darkness and shadow to frame their subject matter in ways that enhance the claustrophobic setting of the mine where Frank’s meth lab is set up.

There’s not a single shot in this film that isn’t just beautifully framed. Cooper and Hoffmeister use shadows, natural landscapes, and set design to divide up the images, isolating the characters onscreen in ways that mirror their internal or social isolations. That opening scene, as Frank enters the mine, lit only by the flickering red light of the flare in his hands, is brilliantly staged as he moves through the darkness of the screen, growing larger as he approaches his meth lab. It’s moments like this, and the many others spread throughout the film, that justify my leeway on the character development front.

Film is a visual medium, first and foremost. Excessive dialogue and exposition are usually the downfalls of a film like this one. Of course, a film like this one doesn’t usually have actors with the raw talent of Russell, Plemons, and the third lead, Jeremy T. Thomas as Lucas Weaver – the twelve-year-old boy trying to keep his dad and brother from becoming flesh eating monsters. Even underutilized actors like Greene or Amy Madigan (as the principal of the school where Julia teaches), bring their A-Games, with Madigan even getting a gruesome and disturbing death scene.

Nearly every aspect of the characters’ backstories is revealed in visuals with minimal exposition (except for Graham Greene’s explanation about Wendigos); it’s all furtive glances, startled jumps, and snapping at one another. You know, just like in real life. And Plemons plays one of the most believably realistic police officers I’ve ever seen in a film. He’s not a super cop. Hell, he barely wants to be a cop. And that’s the best kind of cop, really.

The creature design is another huge bonus for this film. Designed by Guy Davis and inspired by Native American folklore, this thing has that unnerving quality of being so vividly realistic that it could be standing outside your window right now, and it ranks with the disturbing creature from The Ritual (and if you haven’t seen that one, go watch it right now) or the mutated bear in Annihilation (what the hell, go watch that one too). There’s a moment where it wears a human face that will be seared onto my memory forever.

Antlers is a film that truly delivers on every level except maybe the balance between psychological and supernatural horror. Each aspect is handled wonderfully, but they don’t really balance very well. Sometimes it feels as though Cooper was more interested in the realistic drama and a little hands-offish with the supernatural elements. If there was no monster in this movie, it might be regarded pretty highly as an examination of poverty and drug abuse in America. If there was more monster in this movie, it might be regarded pretty highly as a classic creature-feature to rival Pumpkinhead (again, go watch it if you haven’t).

I’m sure that something could also be said negatively about cultural appropriation, with white folks getting center stage in a film about a Native American legend and the only actual Native American in the film is literally only there to establish that it’s a Native American monster. I’m not the one to wade into that argument, but it’s a valid argument. There’s probably also something to be said about the film’s use of poverty, drug addiction, and child abuse as its backdrop without ever really engaging with the subject matter. Another valid argument, I’d say.

But it’s a beautifully filmed monster movie that’s kind of embarrassed about being a monster movie. I can only dream about what Antlers could have been with del Toro directing instead of producing. The film also misses the mark slightly with its finale, which seems a little too easy, despite a rather silly final twist.

I haven’t read the short story that the film is based on, “The Quiet Boy,” by co-screenwriter Nick Antosca (writer on Season 3 of Hannibal, creator of Channel Zero and Brand New Cherry Flavor, and producer on Chucky), but Antlers succeeds mostly on the avoidance of anything too literary. Given that this is the fourth property I’ve loved from Antosca, and the fact that he’s just made his directorial debut on the season finale of Brand New Cherry Flavor, I’m really hoping to see his take on directing a feature film sometime soon. Although, to be honest, I’m totally happy with his TV work, if he wanted to keep exploring that avenue.

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