With the film delayed by Covid for nearly 2 years, shuffled during the Fox/Disney studio merger, and overshadowed by a crowded field of horrors in October, you’d be forgiven if you missed Antlers. What’s been overlooked, though, is a fascinating fable with a dread-inducing momentum toward a spectacular climax few films nail. Much like Guillermo Del Toro used the contrast of fantasy to depict fascism in Pan‘s Labyrinth, Antlers uses the horror genre to face the nightmares of contemporary America in intimate and historic terms.
When lonely teacher Julia Meadows (Keri Russell) returns to her withering hometown in coastal Oregon, she suspects her student Lucas Weaver (Jeremy T. Thomas) is battling abuse & neglect that hit too close to home for her to ignore. When she and her sheriff brother (Jesse Plemons) try to help the boy, they find themselves pursuing something even more unnsettling.
Antlers is fundamentally concerned with exploring trauma, from the macro to the micro, and Cooper’s previous films have dealt with these themes before, from addiction in Crazy Heart, to dying small towns in Out of the Furnace, to ruminations on America’s genocidal sins in Hostiles. Though all good, these works have been melancholy to the point of monotone. Antlers is the first film in which place, history & trauma are neatly packaged under one narrative.
The people and the environment are stitched together, their history of shared trauma leading them to this mutual moment of festering wounds and gloomy despair. Lingering shots of mined & logged landscapes, rusting factories and people lined up for oxy prescriptions are situated between scenes featuring the scrawny children of addicts and the inability of our country’s systems to protect them. In lesser hands this could be the typically offensive poverty porn, but with Cooper it feels personal and humanized. The theme of capitalism ravaging the earth and the people in equal measure as it moves on to its next victim fits neatly with horror’s eternally hungry monsters, a perfect metaphor that is discovered in hindsight rather than self-consciously declared.
Much as in Doctor Sleep or Pet Sematary, the tangible traumas align us with the characters and make them feel grounded in our present; this empathy is then used as staging ground for the symbolic supernatural. An abandoned mine repurposed as a meth lab is ultimately what unleashes the malevolent spirit of Antlers, a Balrog-like figure that’s a perfect articulation of the town’s ills in fantastical flesh (they “delved too greedily and too deep”). Such a specter corners a family in a way not unlike how abuse or addiction damages blood ties. When the creature arrives, it seems only natural that this American space would give birth to such a plague – and the sins of the collective fathers are laid upon the children in heartbreaking ways, giving the film an emotional heft even Oscar-winning titles struggle to muster.
Antlers is not an easy watch. Some critics have openly asked “where’s the fun?,” speaking to the many spooky stories meant to excite and be thrown away like a cheap amusement park ride on a summer night. But there are scores of horror films that are meant to be an honest reflection of our deepest fears, and Cooper does not hold back on what it means to be an American in 2022. Environmental destruction, poverty, impotent social systems, teachers as the last line of defense for children facing neglect and abuse – who doesn’t have some direct experience with these things or know someone who does?
Perhaps that’s what makes this scariest of all. It’s not the special effects that bring the spirit to life (though they’re top notch and show just enough to appropriately jolt you) it’s how recognizable the people, the town and their plight are. What’s scarier than the film’s spirit is how legible the miasma is; we know this beast. Cooper gives us some much needed cultural catharsis by manifesting it into a tangible foe that might be killed with true grit, though not without cost.
Antlers is one of the fest films of 2021 and one of the best horror films in recent memory. It’s uniquely American in its plight and telling, not unlike Jordan Peele’s statement on US racial politics with Get Out. With doses of Let Me In‘s poetic dramatics and Annihilation‘s most terrifying moments, and a unity of action the Greeks would admire, this should be at the top of your queue.