These woods would like to have a word with you.


Antlers (2021 movie)


Several times in Antlers, various characters stop to wonder out loud what the hell is going on (though "hell" is not always the four-letter word they choose). Director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart, Hostiles) makes a few feints at answering that — the call, you could say, is coming from inside the climate change — via loads of stylishly grim foreboding, and the inimitable touch of producer Guillermo del Toro. But his movie (in theaters Friday) is generally more invested in building a kind of mist-shrouded Northwest Gothic grotesque than examining the hows and whys of the movie's almost relentlessly bleak storyline.

The rural Oregon hamlet where the film is set looks like the kind of town people work hard to move away from, though Keri Russell's Julia has seemingly come back of her own free will. Or at least she says it's to be closer with her brother Paul (Jesse Plemons), who also happens to be the sheriff there; it's not clear why else she would have left a life in California for this sunken place of abandoned mines and homegrown meth labs, where most of her evenings are spent wandering the creaky house she and Paul grew up in — every corner still haunted by some nameless trauma at the hands of their late father — and her days trying to rally her anemic students at the local elementary school. She also tends to spend a lot of time staring very hard at the liquor bottles behind the register at the local convenience store before turning away.

Jeremy T. Thomas and Keri Russell in 'Antlers.'
| Credit: Kimberly French/Searchlight Pictures

Even the kids in her care look clinically depressed, but there's one in particular, Lucas (Jeremy T. Thomas), who is clearly operating at another level of Not Okay. He has the eyes of a haunted Keane painting and the body of a boy who has not been cared for in a long time; the weary principal (an underused Amy Madigan) can only tell Julia that his mom is gone, his dad, Frank (Scott Haze), has been messing with meth for a while, and his baby brother Aiden (Sawyer Jones) hasn't been seen at school for weeks.

That's because Frank and Aiden aren't really human anymore: Every day Lucas returns to the carefully bolted attic where they scrabble behind the door like possessed sea crabs, sparse hair matted to their skulls and skin pulsing with blue-black veins. It isn't long before their urges make it past the padlocks, and the Indigenous man who held Paul's job before him (Wind River's Graham Greene) has some idea of how they might have gotten that way. Though Cooper has already been circling the source: An epigraph at the movie's outset foretells the wrath of a Mother Earth that has been pillaged and abused for too many years, and during a lesson on myths and storytelling, Julia takes care to lecture her students on the danger of taking things that don't belong to them.

The clear-cut hills and ragged tree stumps surrounding the town testify to the tardiness of that warning; so does the radio that crackles periodically with end-times news of mountaintop mining, white supremacist groups, and the opioid epidemic. It's not hard to find the environmental fable embedded in Antlers' supernatural storyline, and Cooper deftly draws a world scraped down to the bone; a microcosm of man-made disaster, reaping what's been sown. Plemons and Russell are both too fine as actors not to hint at deeper wells for their damaged characters, and the mood is so oppressively well-wrought that the very soul of the movie seems to be made of leaf rot and despair.

But it's also the kind of film where you can't help wondering why no one seems all that concerned that half the townsfolk are showing up ripped apart from the inside out, or why its protagonists keep heading directly toward the darkness with little more than a flashlight and a self-administered pep talk. (Death in a place this hopeless, maybe, is merely one more extended metaphor.) For all its eerie scene-setting and squishy entrails, Antlers never really exposes the emotional guts of its narrative beyond the scope of midnight-movie horror; without that, it's just another nightmare fairytale leaning hard on heavy vibes and jump scares, and losing the forest for the trees. Grade: B–

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Antlers (2021 movie)

Keri Russell and Jesse Plemons star as a middle-school teacher and her sheriff brother who become embroiled with an enigmatic student in a remote Oregon town.

  • Movie
  • Scott Cooper