The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Antlers’ is a creature feature, grounded in real-world horrors

From left: Jesse Plemons, Jeremy T. Thomas and Keri Russell in “Antlers.” (Florian Hoffmeister/Searchlight Pictures)
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(3 stars)

Scott Cooper, the actor-turned-filmmaker (“Crazy Heart”) from Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, isn’t known for horror movies — at least not the conventional kind — but for having an eye and an ear for an America that’s often forgotten by those in its bigger cities. In such films as “Out of the Furnace,” he displayed an affinity for small, crumbling, postindustrial communities and their citizens. So the director would not necessarily seem a natural partner for Guillermo del Toro, who has produced Cooper’s latest film, “Antlers,” based on Nick Antosca’s short story about the Wendigo, an antlered, supernatural entity inspired by Native American folklore.

In some ways, however, it is a match made in horror-movie heaven.

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“Antlers” is set in a bleak corner of Oregon, in a town where the abandoned coal mine has been repurposed as a makeshift meth lab by Frank Weaver (Scott Haze), a local addict and single dad to two vulnerable and frightened young boys, Lucas (Jeremy T. Thomas) and Aiden (Sawyer Jones). Taking place against a backdrop of the opioid epidemic, unemployment and desperation, the story (smartly adapted by Cooper, Antosca and Henry Chaisson) centers on the relationship between Lucas — a sweet, hollow-eyed kid, heartbreakingly rendered by Thomas, who has begun to exhibit signs of emotional trauma — and his teacher Julia (Keri Russell). Having recently returned to her hometown from California, which she fled many years ago to escape her own sexually predatory father, Julia, or Jules as she’s known, is quick to identify the red flags Lucas is throwing up.

Not so quick is her little brother Paul (Jesse Plemons), the town’s sheriff, who thinks the boy is none of his sister’s business.

Although his ears do perk up when the body of a local man is found, severed messily in two, as if by a wild animal, with one half in the mine.

That’s the setup for the traditional horror side of this story, whose grisly, supernatural style bears del Toro’s hallmarks. In that sense, “Antlers” is a very recognizable thing, with the occasional, judiciously placed jump scare, gore and monster special effects. But Cooper’s input is evident too, in a restraint that imbues the film’s more lurid genre gimmicks with the strength of an allegory. In other words, his influence elevates “Antlers” to a story that isn’t just about a boogeyman, but about addiction, codependence and the intergenerational legacy of abuse. The film opens with Jules teaching her students about the power of storytelling — of which the film is a textbook example.

There are some great, poignant lines here: “I just have to feed him and he’ll love me,” says Lucas to Jules, about his deeply troubled father (troubled in ways that go well beyond meth addiction, as it turns out).

Another line is almost a throwaway. When Paul confronts Jules — whose attentiveness to Lucas seems a form of penance — about how she abandoned him for California, leaving Paul in the care of a monster much more prosaic than the Wendigo, she justifies her leaving by citing what her father did to her.

“You have no idea what he did to me,” Paul replies, with a haunted look in his eyes. The way he can barely keep his coffee cup from shaking says more than his words ever can.

“Antlers” obeys the rules of horror — many of which are familiar, even at times cliche — while also bending them. It’s a creature feature at heart, yes, but its footing is grounded in the tragedies we hear about in the news every day.

Now I ask you, as many viewers of this film may no doubt do as they watch it: Which of the two is the greatest — and most immediate — terror?

R. At area theaters. Contains violence, including gruesome images, and coarse language. 99 minutes.