Horror films have always been a catalyst for discussion about the issues that occupy us; they address societal concerns, socio-economic problems, and the dynamics of our relationships with each other and the world we inhabit. Not all horrors have such loftiness in mind, but it’s often there regardless, hidden in the subtext.
Antlers, whilst essentially on the surface – a monster movie, addresses the weightier subjects of child abuse and its after-effects, drug addiction, family, and poverty; and is all the richer for it.
We begin with Frank (Scott Haze), unwittingly leading his small child, Aiden (Sawyer Jones) into an abandoned mine, after he fails to make good on returning from his work there (the mine in fact, a place for troubled Frank to cook meth). Something happens to them in that dark cramped place, and they come back changed; much to the sorrow of Frank’s older son, long-suffering Lucas (Jeremy T. Thomas), a ten-year-old tasked with the impossible role of caretaker for his increasingly violent father and younger brother – both ‘infected’ somehow, and far from the family he knew. The unstable home-life he had grown used to, now far worse than he could have imagined.
Meanwhile, we get to know teacher Julia (Keri Russell), back in town after an extended absence; she has moved into the home she grew up in, the home that is still inhabited by her brother Paul (Jesse Plemons). There is tension between them, they are cautious around each other, learning to reconnect, painful secrets and hard truths between them. We see flashbacks to a sickeningly abusive childhood, where Julia was a plaything for her father to use and hurt on a whim.
With her baggage firmly in place, she comes to grow increasingly worried about Lucas, who is a student in her class at the local primary school.
Their individual struggles connect them, and before long it becomes an obsession for her – to save him from the terrible life she believes he is living. She decides to investigate, but what she finds will go far beyond what she had envisioned.
Back at home, behind a bolted attic door, dad Frank is getting hungry, and angry.
Touching on myths that First Nations people have been sharing for generations, writers Henry Chaisson and Nick Antosca, create a compelling story through which they interweave that mythology. Cleverly placing the fantastic within an ordinary world, leaves less room for the audience to doubt and question. It also gives the film the breathing space to claim that what appears to be reality, may instead be allegorical.
I’m a fan of both Russell and Plemons and both bring truth and pain to their performances, but the surprise stand-out is Jeremy T Thomas who gives a truly committed turn – he is never less than 100% genuine, no matter what is asked of him emotionally.
The direction by Scott Cooper is also to be commended – the dark foreboding atmosphere is almost visceral, the child abuse scenes are filmed in both literal and suggestive ways that give them an almost nightmare quality which is hugely effective, and this is one of the very few films that actually made me jump. I rarely do; but I realised thinking back its because the ‘jumps’ in this movie are filmed as they would happen in real life – with no jarring musical cue to ‘add’ to the moment; because when shocks happen in life, there isn’t any musical accompaniment – they just happen when your world is going on as it always has – and isn’t that the true horror?
This is a heavy film, its about drug abuse and neglect and poverty and painful childhoods and inner suffering – it’s not for everyone.
However, if you want a film that will affect you, that will give you food for thought and a few scares on the way, I highly recommend Antlers.
In a year when we have endured some truly woeful horror movies, this one stands out as a winner.