Hand it to “Antlers” director and co-screenwriter Scott Cooper. The guy who finally landed Jeff Bridges his Oscar (“Crazy Heart”) and tried to win Johnny Depp one (“Black Mass”) delivers the goriest horror movie to make it to theaters this Halloween.
Sorry, Jamie Leigh.
“Antlers” is another of those “ancient curse awakened” thrillers, this time an Earth Mother demon known to Native Americans who avengers him/herself on meth cookers and miners, cops and schoolkids, all for the crime of despoiling the land.
And it’s got a hint of “The Babadook” about it, as this spirit is chiefly targeting a 12 year-old boy.
I don’t know if the short story it’s based on (by Nick Antosca) has a child abuse subtext. But that makes this grisly slaughter of the just and the unjust a genre thriller that’s about something, and that something gives it a tone as sad and gloomy as the dead, rainy and overcast Oregon mining town that is its setting.
Cooper casts a spell in the film’s slow first acts, then breaks it by over-explaining the threat, and shows little flair for the suspense-building element of the horror film equation.
There are few things more unsettling in a thriller than a child (Jeremy T. Thomas) haunted by the supernatural, and coping, all-alone, with the horrors of living with a meth cooking widowed dad (Scott Haze) and a little brother he can’t protect from the tidal wave of threats, loss and misery that has washed over their lives.
That’s Lucas, a skinny, grimy, wide-eyed urchin in soiled, tattered clothes who shows up in Julia Meadows’ (Keri Russell) class every day at Cispus Falls Elementary. He sits in the back and draws as she tries to teach the kids about myths and legends and how they relate to storytelling.
Lucas knows a little something about that. We saw him ride with Dad to the abandoned mining operation that his meth-mouthed father and a colleague have turned into a meth cooking factory. Lucas heard the unnatural growls. He saw something, and sees what that something did to his still-living/crab-walking cadaver of a father.
That’s what he draws, and when Ms. Meadows coaxes him into telling his idea of a folkloric tale of myth, he “reads” those nightmarish drawings to his class.
He’s laying out the hell his young life has become, describing it in ways more personal than the books teacher finds in his desk (on animal trapping and legendary monsters) possibly could.
But Julia, who recently returned to town after decades in LA, sees something else, “textbook” child abuse. And she’s “an expert.” We realize she lived through something similar, something that drove her away and only her brother (Jesse Plemons), now sheriff, could lure her back.
Ms. Meadows takes an overly-keen interest in Lucas and his home life. She sees his family’s ruined shack with no power, mysterious growls and thumps coming from inside, a long abandoned Trans Am among the debris surrounding it. She alerts the principal (Amy Madigan).
But Lucas has more immediate problems. He’s tiny and bone-thin, and one wonders if young Master Thomas was perhaps cast for his resemblance to the blind banjo player in “Deliverance.” Lucas is a magnet for bullies.
And something that lives in his house needs to be fed — animal meat, bones and entrails (graphically depicted). That’s why Lucas is out trapping and killing wildlife.
But his secret is a secret only until the first body turns up. As Sheriff Paul and his tiny department slow-walk to this or that crime scene, it’s clear that something is eating local, and eating locals. And the only guy who might know who or what is doing it is a former police chief (Graham Greene) of Native American descent.
One piece of evidence is dropped in front of him with an, “Is that from a buck?”
“Nope.” He knows exactly what these “Antlers” come from.
That’s a pivotal scene in the film, the moment where it breaks away from the gathering gloom and has Chief Stokes (Greene) “explain” this creature/demon/phenomenon to the incredulous Paul and the skeptical Julia. It’s a badly-written exposition-packed speech and from the looks of it, Cooper only gave the wonderful character actor Greene one rapid, monotoned recital of it.
All the little lapses into “horror movie illogic” that preceded it we might let slide, the way locals take in on themselves to “investigate” this on their own — not calling the sheriff, or if there’s a deputy or sheriff involved, them not calling for back up.
I can’t remember a horror movie that had this many “DON’T go IN THERE!” prompts from the audience clumsily hard-wired into it.
And here’s a petty gripe. What does everybody in America know about cooking methamphetamine? We know where the raw materials are sourced, and learn about labs usually after this EXTREMELY FLAMABLE process run by people not nearly “Breaking Bad” smart or careful, burns their “lab” to the ground.
How does meth-cooker Frank Weaver make his way down a (coal) mining tunnel to his and his partner’s lab? He lights a FLARE and wanders through coal-dust saturated (and gaseous) air, leaving cinders left and right, until he gets to the lab.
Well, stupid as that is at least it looks good on camera. At least Cooper has a flair for flares.
The cast, playing varying degrees of morose or in mourning, is fine, save for that clunky speech that Greene can’t finesse. The funereal, wet and decaying tone is terrific.
But the “explanations” set up a long, gory and eye-rolling third act in which we finally get a good look at this beastie, which is convincing enough, but presented wrong and photographed worse.
The child abuse subtext is introduced as a motivation for Julia taking extra interest in little Lucas, but it’s never confronted as an issue, leaving her character’s protection instincts somewhat under-motivated.
Plemons plays Paul as a reluctant sheriff with some notion of duty, but almost dimwitted in the ways he faces this existential threat. No thought of calling in the state police?
“Antlers” left me with the feeling of being the work of a top drawer craftsman who never quite reconciles himself to the job, who forgets the “nature’s revenge” theme and leaves he child abuse subtext under-explored, never builds suspense or any sense of rising panic in the town, the school or the sheriff’s department, and yet still manages to deliver a gruesomely good looking film despite all that.
Rating: R for violence, gruesome images and some language (profanity)
Cast: Keri Russell, Jesse Plemons, Jeremy T. Thomas, Amy Madigan, Scott Haze, Rory Cochrane and Graham Greene.
Credits: Directed by Scott Cooper, scripted by Henry Chaisson and Scott Cooper, based on a short story by Nick Antosca. A Searchlight release.
Running time: 1:39