Scott Cooper is a filmmaker who seems primarily driven by following the aftermath. In a growing filmography marked by vengeance and regret and missed chances, one common thread is that his movies are built on the way the people within them respond to the lives they’ve been dealt. Those movies also tend to play out with a certain level of unsparing brutality. Mothers watch their children murdered and brothers are slowly robbed of everything until revenge becomes the only way out. This all makes Cooper a curious candidate to helm a story like “Antlers,” a tale where a very real and tangible human story butts up against an otherworldly spiritual force.
At first, branching out into this new territory proves fruitful in “Antlers,” particularly in the film’s opening moments. A father, leaving his son in a pickup truck waiting outside, heads into his job at a local Oregon mine. Right before he and his colleague meet a sinister force deep in those tunnels, their flare and flashlight give off red and green beams colored just this side of neon. It’s a marked change from the muted earth tones that usually make up Cooper’s palette, whether he’s documenting the wide open expanses of the Old West in “Hostiles” or a Pennsylvania steel mill town in “Out of the Furnace.”
What follows that opening sequence, though, is more of the same, not just for Cooper, but for a well-trod horror subgenre where monsters are ripe for any metaphor that happens to get caught in the crosshairs. That miner’s other son Lucas (Jeremy T. Thomas) goes to school where Julia (Keri Russell) is trying to remake her own life as a teacher. Even before we see the out-of-state plates on her car, there’s a sense that she’s running from something, too. Her brother Paul (Jesse Plemons), relatively new to the position of sheriff, is soon thrust into a town-wide series of investigations that begins with a mangled corpse and draws in more and more unwitting residents.
Adapted by Cooper, C. Henry Chaisson, and Nick Antosca from the latter’s short story “The Quiet Boy,” there’s little else left in the “Antlers” script that isn’t suggested by that setup. It’s characteristically sparse, even as it weaves through some nods to regional substance abuse issues and the environmental ruin brought about by coal operations. (Both are also subjects of news reports playing in the background at Julia and Paul’s house, as if to underline that those problems reach beyond the handful of people this story reels in.)
The film’s most thoughtful stretch is relatively short, and it’s also the closest that “Antlers” comes to finding a port in a storm amidst all the bleakness. Between Lucas’ in-class stories and the drawings he does at his desk (all of them done in black and red ink and featuring a small family at war with a mysteriously shaped creature), Julia recognizes a cry for help and treats him to an after-school dessert. There, the two begin to recognize some similarities in their past family traumas, even though Lucas doesn’t realize just how much they might have in common. Here, Russell comes alive as Julia manages to crack through young Lucas’ hardened exterior. For a brief moment, there’s a glimpse of the film that might have been had the rest of “Antlers” not been devoted to ensuring that the hinted-at, caged monster represent so many different ideas to each of the story’s named characters.
Aside from that brief respite, “Antlers” is otherwise unrelenting in its march to a crescendo that offers barely more than what’s telegraphed. Signs go ignored, threats get misunderstood, and past horrors get excavated like the fuel coming out of the place where this whole story began. There’s grief and confusion and frustration and simmering anger, with not much room left for much else.
This is all delivered with a healthy dose of Cooper’s deliberate style. Russell, like Christian Bale and Rosamund Pike before her, is a performer who can take those pensive moments and make them more than just an image of someone lost in thought, staring out into the distance. And when the body count does start to rise, there’s some time set aside to take in the grisly evidence left behind.
Getting from signpost to signpost on the way to confronting the creature in question is what trips up “Antlers” most. Graham Greene’s retired sheriff is eventually called on to explain exactly what this town is up against. Coupled with what amounts to a plot roadmap, the film’s on-screen epigraph about respect for nature feels like a grafted-on excuse to make a monster movie rather than a fundamental part of the story Cooper is looking to tell.
At his best, Cooper is someone who can wring tension and understanding from what’s come before, not necessarily in anticipation of what’s about to happen. “Antlers” ends up getting caught between the two. Moments where forces seem to buckle under violent tension are something of a Cooper specialty. Here, those moments feel less like carefully seeded outbursts and more like perfunctory bloodbaths that genre expectations demand. It’s just busy enough to try to connect everyone in a web of past injuries and injustices, while also teasing a terror thumping behind a locked door. In the process, “Antlers” ends up with too little of what could set it apart and stops short of making good on the metaphorical promises it makes for itself.
A Searchlight Pictures release, “Antlers” opens in theaters on Friday, October 29.
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