Somewhere not too deep inside Scott Cooper’s Antlers looms a decent monster movie. In fact, it rears its head through the oppressive clouds and fog much like the film’s actual monster — a hoofed folkloric beast the film shows only in quick glimpses, in what you would likely call a variation on the classic Jaws sensibility of getting more from less. But the larger problem here comes from something more contemporary of creature features: the striving for the monster to be more than a monster. At one point in time, subtext lurked beneath these films. Nowadays, they’ve been swallowed whole by fearsome oversized metaphors. Yet Antlers doesn’t even settle on a singular metaphor. You almost have to feel bad for its deer-like main attraction, forced to shoulder the burden of multiple ills. At first, the movie seems to be sticking to folkloric interpretation, the old legends whispering of Mother Nature’s nastier offspring. The camera glides over a body of water in scenic Oregon, before landing on a collection of billowing factories looming within the surrounding woods. When something snarling and unseen takes out a pair of workers inside these factories, we have to wonder if the gnashing thing is attacking on behalf of the environment rather than its own bottomless appetite.
The movie stocks its shelf large with the various social-issues. Maybe the real monster is economic depression. Or maybe it’s the opioid crisis. Or maybe it’s familial trauma. They all cast a shadow over Cooper’s dreary small-town setting. And many of those are related problems, of course — all part of the tapestry of America’s failures. They converge in the home of a young boy, Lucas Weaver (Jeremy T. Thomas), with dark circles under his eyes and dark events weighing on his heart. Behind a locked door, his father (Scott Haze) growls and wails, sickness in his blood. Lucas’ brother is with him, shifting the film’s theme again. His teacher, Julia (Keri Russell), sees the evidence of at-home trouble, too. She’s back in her hellishly depleted hometown after an eternity away, crashing with her lawman brother, Paul (Jesse Plemons), following the death of their father. Based on a short story by Nick Antosca, who cowrote the screenplay with Cooper and Henry Chaisson, Antlers doles out the backstory of these estranged siblings like an IV drip. To put it shortly, Julia knows all too well about the way children of abusive households instinctively protect the secret of their parents’ mistakes. And in Lucas, she sees both a mirror of her own traumatic history and a belated opportunity for redemption.
Antlers may be Cooper’s first true horror film, but it’s a genre he’s long flirted with — turning Johnny Depp into an almost vampiric gangster in Black Mass and Woody Harrelson into a frighteningly barbaric figure of human evil in Out of the Furnace — which makes this full jump into terror feel inevitable. The connection between all those previous films, even Cooper’s debut feature, Crazy Heart, is an interest in the day-to-day grit and grime of American life: the seedy motels and honky-tonk bars of a downscale country tour, the crime-plagued neighborhoods of South Boston, a steel mill in the once-thriving blue-collar hub of Allegheny County. Cooper’s approach this time around, though, is to drown just about every frame in despair. Antlers sustains a note of unyielding moroseness through its muted palette and melancholic strings. It’s rare to see a monster movie, or a big-studio movie, this dour.
But there’s nothing to dismiss here in regards to its craft. Antlers has a strong sense of place: a good feel for the bone-deep melancholy of this woodsy, rainy outpost of meth country. Its images can be striking and memorable; there’s a great, late overhead shot, for example, of a car cutting a faint line of illumination through the blackest of night, balanced on both sides of the road by an ocean of foreboding foliage. And the actors are committed to the emotional stakes of the material: Russell and Plemons try their best with the script’s overfamiliar kitchen-sink drama, admirably oblivious to the dozens of hardscrabble indies that have walked this path of grim familial reckoning before. No expense was spared, either, on the Ray Harryhausen side of the equation. Among the producers is Guillermo del Toro, and you can see his devilish influence whenever this monster movie decides to fully be one. The violence is surprisingly grisly for such a high-minded affair; Cooper does not skimp on the gore and what we do see of the creature is pretty strong.
Yet the film’s aspirations to prestige smother its immediacy, the thrills of the genre it’s supposedly occupying. Antlers fancies itself a message movie, but on that front it’s muddled at best. All the studiously researched Native American folklore — packaged in a single expository dump, finely delivered by ace character actor Graham Greene — keeps bumping up against its underlying thoughts about addiction, poverty, and cycles of violence. The impression is of an awkward attempt to cram the square peg of an abuse story into the round hole of respectfully reproduced mythology. What does this monster represent anyway? It sure can’t be everything. And by the murky messaging of the climax, you start to realize that maybe nothing would have been just fine. Its oppressive, dank sense of place may be strong, but Antlers ultimately gets caught in a muddled fog of mixed metaphor.
Antlers is playing in Theaters nationwide