In a small, depressing town in Oregon, ravaged by economic despair and opioid addiction, out crawls a monster to make shit even worse. Come on, read the room, monster. We don’t see him clearly for a while, we don’t know what he’s up to at first, or how he works, but we get his general vibe. Uncool.
We see this story primarily through the eyes of elementary school teacher Julia Meadows (Keri Russell, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III, DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER, and I believe I heard she was in a ‘90s television show created by the directors of those films, not sure about that, probly mistaken), who is not in a great spot. She moved out of town when she was young, but has recently returned to find it not as good as it even was then. She temporarily lives in her childhood home with her brother Paul (Jesse Plemons, BATTLESHIP) and every day goes to the store and stares longingly at the liquor shelf while she buys a pack of gum or something.
She has trouble getting all but one of her students to engage at all in class, but she tries. For example she calls on Lucas Weaver (Jeremy T. Thomas, “School boy / classmate,” DOLLY PARTON’S COAT OF MANY COLORS), a scrawny sad little kid with holes in his shirt, who may possibly be illiterate. He goes from drawings with no text when he reads his story, an extremely grim and thinly-veiled autobiography about a young bear and his sick father bear. We can see how it sounds to her, but we know it’s even worse: his dad Frank (Scott Haze, VENOM, MINARI) and little brother Aiden (Sawyer Jones, one episode of Modern Family) had an encounter with the monster and now they’re locked in the attic as veiny, bestial zombie-type creatures. Lucas kills small animals and chops up roadkill to feed them. Alot of responsibility for a kid that age, and he definitely steps up to the plate.
He also has to deal with regular kid stuff, including a very true-to-life bully. He’s just some normal looking kid with a couple giggly toadies and they’re all extremely amused when he makes weird sexual threats (pretending to hump a sock monkey?) that I don’t understand but probly make sense to little boys. Their fights get Lucas sent to the nurse where it’s obvious that he has some injuries not received at school. Julia was a victim of abuse herself, so after talking to her brother the sheriff and Principal Booth (Amy Madigan, STREETS OF FIRE) gets her nowhere, she starts going out of her way to help this kid with his home life. And that’s how she gets into some monster shit.
One reason Julia worries about Lucas is because of his scary drawings. Incidentally, I realized in the middle of this movie that I had some overlapping experience, because I once had a teacher who was disturbed by my drawings and made me go to the counselor. I had not seen a monster though.
Of course you would hope a teacher would try to protect any kid that was in trouble, but this kid may be special because he’s clearly a very talented artist. I mean, it’s just like so many other horror movies where it’s supposed to be a scary kid drawing, but it’s kind of distracting that they keep looking at them and getting upset and not one person says, “God damn, this disturbed young man is very talented! Look at this design! The depth, the use of black, not to mention the strategically deployed red. And you said he threw this one away?”
The drawings are of course by an adult: the artist of the B.P.R.D. comic book Guy Davis, who is also the lead creature designer. He previously worked on MONSTER HUNTER as well as Guillermo Del Toro’s PACIFIC RIM, CRIMSON PEAK and NIGHTMARE ALLEY. Which reminds me that ANTLERS is produced by Del Toro, as you can guess from the high quality of the monster. It kind of seems like the conclusion to a trilogy with fellow Del Toro productions DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK and MAMA. All three have a really great lead actress playing an interesting horror character, plus kids and monsters. And one of my main memories of MAMA is that it left us with the unexpected notion “Hey, maybe the kid wants the monster as a parent, who are we to say no?” And I like that ANTLERS runs with that idea. Lucas’s bear story concludes, “But at least they had each other.” But Julia doesn’t seem to consider that a satisfying ending.
(BIGGER SPOILERS COMING UP FOR ANALYSIS PURPOSES)
A little detail in the opening scene jumped out at me – two words that foreshadow a central theme of the movie. Lucas’s little brother Aidan is exploring what seem to be abandoned buildings near a mine, and then runs back to the pickup truck he’s supposed to be waiting in, just in time to not be caught by his dad. When we see Dad he has a look to him that is often movie code for scary-redneck-guy. But as he tells his son to stay in the truck and he’s gonna finish up his work and then they’ll go pick up Lucas, he slides in the two words: “Love you.” This is something that scary rednecks don’t all say. Something many dads, including nice ones, don’t say. Mine didn’t. It really struck me. Entirely changed what I thought I was supposed to assume about him.
And then he goes into the mine to finish his work and, oh — well, his work is a meth lab, it looks like. Like you’d expect from a guy in a movie who looks like this. The guy you wouldn’t expect to tell his son, apropos of not much, that he loves him.
This loving meth lab dad comes home as a literal monster, of course, and Lucas has to take care of him. Terrified of him, but believing that “at least we have each other” line. It’s an obvious parallel to the non-supernatural story of Frank the drug addict. When Paul and Julia talk about him they clearly have low opinions of him and his ability to take care of his kids, but Paul thinks it would be worse to take the boys away from him.
Late in the movie we learn a new detail: When he first came home, Frank was aware of what was happening to him and the need to protect his kids from it. He was the one who put the locks on the door and told his sons to keep him in there. He wasn’t a total piece of shit, he wasn’t a monster. He was a person. Maybe more flawed than some, but a person nonetheless. And, right or wrong, Lucas chose to stay with him and try to take care of him.
This theme of whether or not a child can love abusive parents extends to Julia and Paul. We know that Julia felt the need to leave the abuse – there is guilt and tension about the fact that, unlike Lucas, she didn’t know how to protect her brother from it. When Lucas asks her if she loved her father, she changes the subject. But her situation is kind of the reverse of Lucas’s. When she breaks down and talks about what happened, the thing she focuses on is that she had to hide under the stairs to stop her dad from hurting her. Lucas’s dad locks himself away up stairs to stop from hurting him.
I like that these parallels between the families explore the theme but also explain the character. Julia’s experiences are why she pays more attention to what’s going on with Lucas than other adults do, why she reaches out to him, why it’s so important to her to help him, and also why she’s mostly alone and has the time to think about it and get involved in it.
Paul recognizes this and tells her that “it’s not about” her, which infuriates her. When she snaps at him that she’s the one who had her arm broken by their dad, he tells her she has “no idea” what he went through. And then never tells her a word about it. Keeping it all in. It’s also indicated that he ran for sheriff reluctantly, because he thought there was no one else who would step up. Even before all this collecting of mauled carcasses it’s been a really hard job for him. He describes, for example, his grim duty of giving people 15 minutes to gather their belongings when they’ve been evicted. He doesn’t know how to make anything better, but he martyrs himself to be the one that has to do it. Just like he had to be the one to stay with their mentally ill dad.
I suppose Julia’s sort of martyring herself too. And it’s not like she’s not keeping some of this inside either. More than once she’s frightened by Paul in the house, obviously remembering things their father did to her, but then she apologizes, laughs, smiles, says she’s fine. Pretends it’s not a big deal. When he offers to do things to accommodate her, she says no, don’t be silly, acts like it would inconvenience him.
This is such a great dramatic role for Russell, and then at the end it’s a little bit more, because she fuckin spears a monster, grunts and rolls over its corpse, takes a knife and cuts it open, pulls its heart out. And then, when there’s something much tougher than that she has to do, she does that too. Yes, it’s true, this movie wendi-goes for it.
It is not a spookablast. It’s a moody, somber movie. It’s emotional at times. It seems to take place in October (I noticed pumpkin and ghost decorations in the school) and makes good Fall viewing. I thought it had a really authentic Pacific Northwest gloom to it – not pouring rain, just mud and wet leaves and shit sticking to everything – filmed in Hope, B.C., the same Canadian town where FIRST BLOOD was filmed. Julia seems to still be in California mode when she goes to Lucas’s house wearing new-looking white sneakers.
I like that it’s about real human stuff, but it wouldn’t need to, because it delivers on the monster shit. There’s some love put into staging this stuff. Like there’s the shock moment where an officer (Rory Cochrane, PASSION PLAY) is gored from behind, and then when Jeff arrives at the same place you’re relieved that he (having no idea of its significance) puts on his bullet proof vest. Then we get to test whether or not it’s antler-proof when he steps into the same exact trap as the last guy. Sometimes it’s the smallest decisions that can change your life forever.
It’s always nice to see the great Graham Greene (DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE), who explains mythology about the wendigo to them, but they don’t go to him as a “Wise Indian” or something – he’s the previous sheriff who you go to when you’re the dumb young new guy and all the sudden you’re finding torn up bodies all over the place.
This comes from a short story called “The Quiet Boy” by Nick Antosca (creator of Channel Zero and Brand New Cherry Flavor), who collaborated on the screenplay with newcomer Henry Chaisson and director Scott Cooper. I’ve seen some of my internet pals and colleagues being dismissive or harsh about Cooper, but I’m not down with that. I know I liked his debut CRAZY HEART, though of course it’s mostly Jeff Bridges anyone remembers about it. OUT OF THE FURNACE was considered a disappointment, but I liked the whole mood and atmosphere of it and of course the performance by Christian Bale. I have not seen BLACK MASS, which has been the source of much scorn, but I thought his western HOSTILES was excellent and kind of profound in the way it depicted every possible cool cowboy moment leading to a bunch of uneccessary death. So I was already pro-Scott Cooper, and now the guy has made a really top notch monster movie, so that makes him truly, officially respectable in my book.