Suffering characters hang on for deer life in handsomely mounted creature feature 'Antlers'

  • A diabolical creature torments Lucas Weaver (Jeremy T. Thomas) and his teacher Julia Meadows (Keri Russell) in a desolate Oregon town in "Antlers."

    A diabolical creature torments Lucas Weaver (Jeremy T. Thomas) and his teacher Julia Meadows (Keri Russell) in a desolate Oregon town in "Antlers." Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

  • Julia Meadows (Keri Russell) is tormented by more than just the wendigo creature in "Antlers."

    Julia Meadows (Keri Russell) is tormented by more than just the wendigo creature in "Antlers." Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

Posted10/28/2021 6:00 AM

"Antlers" - ★ ★

Don't get all excited just because freaky creature feature filmmaker Guillermo del Toro produced one of the scary movies playing this Halloween weekend.


Del Toro, director of Oscar's Best Picture "The Shape of Water" and other beastly stories, may be a producer on the atmospheric folk tale "Antlers," but the directorial chores fall to Scott Cooper.

He's no slouch, having directed Jeff Bridges to one of his Best Actor Oscars in 2009's "Crazy Heart" plus helming the respectable gangster drama "Black Mass" and the western "Hostiles."

But Cooper might have benefited from borrowing some of the sheer sense of fun and shameless fascination del Toro brings to telling fantastical, frightening tales such as "Pan's Labyrinth" and "The Devil's Backbone."

Cooper weighs every scene with oh-so-serious importance in "Antlers," a handsomely mounted, moderately suspenseless thriller centered around a "wendigo," a deer/humanoid hybrid steeped in Native American folklore. We learn during the opening screen crawls that the wendigo goes into action when spurred by human failure to take care of the planet and respect Mother Nature, or words to that effect.

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Here, the beastie terrorizes a poor, decaying Oregon town already blighted by drugs, depression and desperation.

Keri Russell, whose career high point remains her titular performance in 2007's "Waitress," plays a local teacher named Julia, who knows firsthand the horrors of domestic violence as a child. She recognizes those signs in a shy 12-year-old boy named Lucas (a sallow-eyed Jeremy T. Thomas as a heart-rending, wounded soul). She finds the gory, violent pictures drawn in his notebooks particularly disturbing.

She has no idea that Lucas' dad, reduced to manufacturing meth in an abandoned coal mine, has been locked in an upstairs bedroom in his home where Lucas brings him trapped animals to eat (or when available, plain old roadkill).

Dad appears to be undergoing a horrific metamorphosis and clearly should not be mingling with the public.

Neither Julia's principal nor her brother Paul (Jesse Plemons) -- now the county sheriff -- thinks there's any reason to be worried about little Lucas. (Wait. Did these guys not notice those gory, violent pictures?)

Paul has been baffled by the discovery of corpses in his jurisdiction, often with body parts in different locations.

Former sheriff and Native American expert on local lore Warren Stokes (Graham Greene in the wizened voice-of-reason role) suggests a "diabolical spirit" might be on the loose.


"This is a myth," Paul says.

"To you, yeah," Warren replies.

In "Antlers," the monster tends to be the least interesting part of the movie, especially when the humans face much scarier horrors than being torn asunder.

Adapted from a short story by Nick Antosca (one of the three credited screenwriters), "Antlers" pits a rural dystopia against its cast of characters. Paul references the overwhelming number of drug busts, home evictions and domestic strife cases he handles.

Seemingly innocuous TV reports touch on the opioid crisis.

Domestic horrors abound with abusive parents, failing institutions, poverty and alcoholism. (Julia can't go into a grocery store without being tempted to plunge back into an alcoholic abyss. She teaches at a school still using 16 mm film projectors.)

Who becomes a wendigo and why remains vague and almost unimportant. At least the wendigo supplies a reasonable amount of carnage expected in an R-rated monster movie, but the white-knuckled, nail-biting suspense of high horror eludes it.

• • •

Starring: Keri Russell, Jesse Plemons, Jeremy T. Thomas, Graham Greene

Directed by: Scott Cooper

Other: A Searchlight Pictures release. In theaters. Rated R for violence. 99 minutes

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