Antlers (2021)

Antlers first published by Little White Lies

There is a scene near the beginning of Antlers where Miss Julia Meadows (Keri Russell), recently returned to her childhood home in small-town Oregon, teaches a primary school class on myths and fables. “Storytelling”, she says, “is a way for people to explain their world, their culture”, and she expressly cites the narrative traditions of the local Native American population. When pressed, one of her quieter pupils, Lucas Weaver (Jeremy T. Thomas) – whose very surname befits a storyteller – recites a variant on the Goldilocks and the Three Bears fairytale (sans the blonde heroine). Herself a still-recovering victim of child abuse, Julia immediately recognises in this skinny, scrappy young boy’s words an oblique allegory of his own dysfunctional domestic situation. So, hoping to rescue herself as much as Lucas, Julia begins surreptitiously looking into the boy’s home life, not realising that his story was explaining a different kind of horror, rooted in local legend. 

At the centre of Antlers is gaping hunger, both literal and metaphorical. You can see it in the way that Julia eyes the liquor bottles in the local store, or that Lucas peers into the window of an ice cream shop, or in the ravenous aching of Lucas’ meth-cooking father (Scott Haze) and little brother Aiden (Sawyer Jones), or more figuratively in the desperate yearning of Julia’s brother Paul (Jesse Plemons) to be a family again – and this insatiable need (and greed) is figured more broadly in the mine that is one of the film’s key locations, leaving ugly marks dug into its beautiful seaside setting, and due, against all environmental advice, to be reopened. There may be a monster in this creature feature, but in a way it is merely the mythic embodiment of all these struggles to find satisfaction and fill a bottomless void of longing. The human characters here, both consumers and feeders, all have their own monstrousness, and the more you try to psychologise the bestial events happening on screen, the more disturbing the film becomes. The horned entity may leave corpses marred by abominable trauma, but the living too, like their damaged environment, already come deeply scarred.

There is not just a shape-shifter on the loose in Antlers, but also a protean kind of storytelling: Lucas’ tale (open to more than one interpretation) of mean, starving bears who still at least “had each other”; tales of depravities hidden behind closed doors; local lore about the ever-starving wendigo; and Nick Antosca’s short story The Quiet Boy, here very freely adapted and copiously expanded by Antosca and co-writers Henry Chaisson and director Scott Cooper (Hostiles, 2017). These myths are indeed made to accommodate the otherwise unspeakable horrors of domestic deprivation and abuse, ecological predation and colonial injustice and exploitation. Antlers is a slippery, troubling feature whose ambiguities, despite one heavy-handed piece of exposition, remain intact even as the film’s identity keeps metamorphosing and body-swapping. Here, the beast within has always been there, lurking and latent as part of America’s constitution, and just waiting to bite back.

Strap: Scott Cooper’s grotesque hybrid horror keeps metamorphosing its identity, while mining layers of psychological/sociological/national subtext

Anton Bitel