Antlers effectively uses its haunting atmosphere and grimy visuals to uphold tension throughout, even if the film’s message isn’t quite as powerful as intended.
More than eighteen months after the film’s initial release date, Scott Cooper’s Antlers has finally arrived – and it’s every bit as atmospheric and haunting as the marketing promised. The film mixes real-life indiginous folklore with a compelling, high-stakes mystery, which culminates in a gripping story that has plenty to say about modern society, particularly on the themes of trauma and abuse that encompass our central characters. Although the film often fails to examine its themes as closely and deeply as is necessary for such a layered story, the beautifully dark cinematography and well considered direction make the film succeed on a much more fundamental level.
The story starts with Lucas (Jeremy T. Thomas), a young boy who, in the aftermath of his mother’s death and his father’s newfound illness, is troubled by the knowledge of a deadly horned creature that has begun to terrorise the small town he calls home. When his teacher (Keri Russell) takes note of the boy’s strange behaviour and grows concerned for his safety, she finds herself entangled in the police search for the creature, which brings her closer to Lucas with every step. The film succeeds in plenty of areas, but one of its most impressive assets is the way it blends this personal story of mental illness and abuse with the larger-scale monster hunt, without one ever feeling as though it takes dominion over the other. There may be moments where these elements feel independently underdeveloped, but the way they come together to create such an engaging film is a testament to the filmmaking ability on display and the importance of the story’s central messaging.
In a world where it feels like every horror film is always trying to assert some sort of social or political message onto its audience, Antlers manages to miraculously avoid this by providing an equally entertaining creature feature alongside its admittedly important subtext. Whilst Lucas’ journey of self-discovery and recovery is undoubtedly the true purpose of the film, it isn’t the only aspect that allows it to succeed. The surface level narrative is more than enough to keep the audience’s attention throughout, and the film’s slower pacing gives us time to connect to the characters without anything ever feeling rushed. That being said, those important themes of abuse and trauma do often feel underdeveloped as a result of this, and it may leave you wondering exactly what the point of this social commentary is if it isn’t going to be explored to its fullest.
From a technical standpoint, the film manages everything you’d expect and then more. The colours are eerily and suitably moody, the cinematography contrasts sweeping landscapes with intimate moments of character development, and the way that Cooper frames those moments of body horror makes them so much more effective and frightening. Producer Guillermo del Toro’s presence is definitely felt throughout Antlers, adopting that signature twisted fairytale style which works so well for this sort of story. The treatment of the film’s antagonistic creature is perfect, only showing its true scale and power when absolutely necessary, usually opting instead to keep it out of the frame to maximise tension and intrigue. The practical effects and production design are also a standout – whether it’s the creature itself or the remains of its victims, everything looks authentic and grounded in reality, which makes these scenes even more disturbing.
All in all, there’s a lot to like about Antlers. It’s got a wonderfully harrowing atmosphere, touchingly relatable and genuine characters, and a compelling mystery that just begs to be solved. It might not quite meet the expectations that its seemingly endless wait has conjured, but it achieves what it’s going for with an admirable ease. It’s one of those rare social horrors that doesn’t force its message onto its audience, instead opting for a much more restrained and accessible presentation of its commentary that will surely land with plenty of its viewers.
Antlers is out now on digital and on demand.