As long as you feed The Beast and give it enough of what it wants, that might prevent it from harming others. That’s the prevailing message of Scott Cooper’s Antlers and it’s not a particularly fresh one as the foul stenches and stretches of the storyline play out. It attempts to balance body horror and creature feature elements with an abuse allegory and a tale of moral and environmental decay. With an assist from Guillermo del Toro on the production side, the pic ultimately bites off more than it can chew. This is also an issue for the title character terrorizer who leaves half devoured carcasses lying around.
The setting is the desolate Oregon town of Cispus Falls where lines for store front recovery centers appear to outnumber any other facade. In the opening, Frank Weaver (Scott Haze) has taken his youngest son Aiden (Sawyer Jones) his workplace of an abandoned mine shaft turned meth lab. Frank and his buddy leave the youngster waiting in the truck while they break up their bad deeds below. An attack by an unseen animal force begins the carnage that leaves longstanding marks on the Weaver family.
Flash forwarding above ground and weeks later, Aiden’s older brother Lucas (Jeremy T. Thomas) is an outcast who rushes to collect roadkill as his after school activity. Bringing the critters home with him, what lies behind a locked door shows the current condition of dad and Aiden. It’s not for the faint of heart or those who just feasted.
Lucas’s behavior catches the attention of his teacher Julia (Keri Russell). She’s recently moved back from California after two decades and in with her brother Paul (Jesse Plemons), who’s the Sheriff around these parts. The two share a caring but sometimes strained bond in their family home. Their mother passed long ago and their father more recently. Brief flashbacks and more expository dialogue reveal an abusive past. Julia recognizes signs of mistreatment in her pupil while not imagining the extent of it.
I did appreciate much about the atmospheric touches and gorgeous cinematography in Antlers – even if it’s focused on some grisly occurrences. The Weavers fall prey to an ancient Native American evil spirit known as a Wendigo which causes the cursed subjects to become cannibalistic and ravenous. This is mostly explained by the town’s ex-sheriff played by Graham Greene and it’s not a tale that the picture seems preoccupied in mining for material. There is a tone of seriousness that prevents this from ever becoming campy. Perhaps a little of that could have helped.
There’s no faulting the performances as Russell and Plemons commit and Thomas is believable as the malnourished child who must become an adult before he should. The problem lies with committing to too many ideas and giving the short shrift to all of them. There are worse flaws to be had and Antlers never feels like a regurgitation of previous works (though its themes are familiar). Devotees of highbrow horror might be satiated, but I found myself hungering for Cooper, del Toro, and company to pick a plot line and explore it a little more.
**1/2 (out of four)