There is plenty of reason that Antlers, the new film by director Scott Cooper, is gloomy. It deals with heavy emotions related to abuse and the visual palette matches this grim theme. The film is all blues and browns. It is as if no sun can enter the world the film lives in. While the visual tone is spot on, the film is little more than the aesthetics it presents, refusing to delve deep into the cycles of abuse it presents.
Antlers is largely about one lost soul trying to save another. Julia "Jules"(Kerri Russell) is a teacher at the local elementary school. She immediately recognizes the signs of abuse in Lucas (the outstanding Jeremy T. Thomas). She knows them well, as various flashbacks elude to. Of all her students, Lucas seems to be the only one she connects to and his situation gives her purpose. She recently moved back home with her Sheriff brother Paul (Jesse Plemons) and the teaching gig doesn't ever seem to be her first choice.
Early on tension is apparent between Paul and Jules. He keeps startling her at times. They have curt exchanges about their abusive father. Jules left and Paul stayed to deal with it. This is cross-played with Lucas's backstory. In the opening scene, Lucas's father is seen caring for the boy as he emerges from an illegal meth lab in an abandoned mine. They are attacked and Lucas's younger brother wanders in after them. They return with a sickness and very soon Lucas is left on his own with his family locked up in their house. Lucas has to find things for them to eat and seems to constantly be worried for his safety. When Jules begins to worry about Lucas, it sets off a series of increasingly grizzly encounters with what the film says is a Windigo.
The biggest shortcoming of Antlers is this element paired with its heavy-handed theme of abuse. Poor Graham Greene is brought in as the magical Indigenous local to tell Jules and Paul about the Windigo. The trope here has always been offensive but it is especially so in Antlers given how little else Greene is given to do. He is a talented actor and deserved better. The mythology is brushed over and never built upon. When the film ends, you will be struggling to make the connections between this Native spirit and the themes the film focuses on.
What is solid about the film is the creature's design and the performances. With Guillermo del Toro as producer, the creature design is gnarly and truly a thing to see. It deserves a better film as it has been a long time since a monster in a film has felt so original. The effects are icky and full of body horror. The central cast is also fantastic. Russell is empathetic and sad as Jules. She seems to carry so much pain with her in every scene. It will remind you why she is a great actress. Plemons is also very good as her brother. The film's true star is Thomas as Lucas. He gives a remarkable child performance that has to sell fear, pain, shame, and anger. It is an impressive feat of acting.
Antlers has just enough monster movie delights to please horror fans but the film has zero staying power thanks to its poorly constructed script. The offensive Indigenous representation, muddled theme, and lack of mythology keep the film from reaching the heights it could have hit.