Anyone who appreciated Scott Cooper’s directorial debut — 2009’s affable, Oscar-winning Crazy Heart — and watched his three subsequent films probably wondered: What the hell happened to that guy? In 2013, Cooper turned Out of the Furnace, a potboiler perfect for Jason Statham, into an overwrought odyssey of misery starring Christian Bale. After his capable, if anonymous, work on Johnny Depp’s failed 2015 Oscar audition reel, Black Mass, Cooper delivered 2017’s Hostiles, which turned a potentially powerful expression of the Western form into … an overwrought odyssey of misery starring Christian Bale.
For some reason, Cooper has dedicated himself to persuading people Crazy Heart was a faux-friendly foot in the door for someone who’s actually Hard, Tough and Not Fucking Around.™ Cooper’s hollow homilies of hardscrabble life purport to elevate genre work into something more glorified. His general, and generic, conclusions are that hurt people hurt people. Cooper slings a similar sermon in Antlers, his first foray into horror that finished filming in 2018 — another oft-delayed casualty of pandemic-shifted scheduling that finally opens in theaters Friday.
Through astonishingly graphic creature effects you’d expect of a film produced by Guillermo Del Toro, Antlers decidedly commits to simple pleasures of this genre in ways Cooper has not in his other fare. Neither does anyone wail at the top of their lungs while digging a grave with bare hands for their murdered babies, so at least it’s not another overwrought odyssey of misery starring Christian Bale. (A digression: Hostiles is one of the 2010s’ worst movies, and saved only by the slightly more execrable Wind River to not also be that decade’s most hilariously misguided cinematic assuaging of white guilt for atrocities against Native Americans.)
The opening epigram of Antlers tells us the pillaging of Mother Earth has unleashed a Malevolent Spirit that preys on the lost, the frail and the depraved. “Pray it desires not You,” reads the last line before we see a pair of meth-manufacturing men attacked in a mine. A few weeks later, junior-high teacher Julia Meadows (Keri Russell) faces a room of blank stares during a storytelling lesson. The subtext of a short story written by reticent runt Lucas (Jeremy T. Thomas) spurs Julia’s concern for his wellbeing, as does Lucas’s growing portfolio of disturbing, precociously accomplished drawings of bloody bodies torn in two.
It’s not the only old saw. You understand that Julia knows trauma by the way her gaze fixates on booze behind the grocer’s counter. Or how the movie repeats the same jump scare for her within minutes, only peppering the slight return with salacious flashbacks of what happened to her as a child. Julia believed escaping the dreary decrepitude of Cispus Falls, Oregon, would ease her mind. It didn’t, and she has temporarily moved back in with Paul (Jesse Plemons), the baby brother she left behind who is now the town sheriff. His is a thankless position of civic authority dedicated mostly to evicting families, and Plemons makes you feel the weight of dictating the fate of people from whom he’s but a coin flip away. Plemons and Russell are terrific actors who are always a pleasure to see on a big screen. They do their level best to sell lines like “Take it from someone who can diagnose abuse” (Russell) or, when someone responds “Jesus” to the description of a grisly crime scene, “From what he told me, I don’t think … Jesus was anywhere to be found” (Plemons).
The latter line concerns corpses found in nearby woods with their lower halves missing — mangled mementos of what once were human bodies, gnawed to the bone by what seem to be human teeth. Yep, it’s that Malevolent Spirit, and it ties back to danger that lurks in Lucas’s life as well as the Native American wendigo legend. Naturally, the movie’s sole, and stereotypically sage, indigenous character (played by Graham Greene) says that “wendigo” translates to “a diabolical wickedness that devours mankind.” The White people in charge don’t listen. When do they?
In its finest scenes, Antlers depicts a horrifying transcendence of fleshy limitations through hardcore gore that amplifies the affectations of co-writer Nick Antosca, who previously wrote for the TV series Hannibal, created the Channel Zero anthology, and adapted from his own story here. There’s a purity amid the pus of all this death and transfiguration, hardship leaving behind literal husks of people you know and love and sending forth their most fearful evolutionary adaptations for survival. Per the film’s title, the wendigo eventually strikes in full and fine form, thanks to creature design from Del Toro staple Guy Davis (The Shape of Water). There is also a moment involving the wendigo’s attempt to calm children that’s masterfully macabre and melancholy in a way that the rest of Antlers can’t match.
Like most horror films, Antlers is full of people exploring homes or spaces saturated by the throat-choking smell of entrails all by their lonesome. This is a genre staple displayed well here, especially as one investigator’s cheek gets ripped off like a fleshy Fruit Roll-Up. But Cooper wants you to feel like this is less about someone making a dumb choice in a horror movie and more of a subtle evocation of the burdens placed on broken social support systems in small Pacific Northwest towns, where every industry has dried up except for the misery machine of illness and indigence. Once again, it’s Cooper feeling like the trappings of genre alone are somehow shameful and beneath him, that he’s more interested in tropes eLeVaTeD bY tRaUmA and boilerplate social commentary about poverty-stricken areas rather than really mining any meaning from them. For all its subtextual promise and skillful practical effects, Antlers is hollow about American hardship in the way many politicians are hollow about it — trafficking like a tourist and trying to make point-scoring platitudes without much personal empathy for actual, cold realities.