A Scott Cooper movie always seems to have the air of prestige around it that never feels earned. While his breakthrough feature Crazy Heart won an Oscar for Jeff Bridges, since then, Cooper’s filmography—Black Mass, Out of the Furnace, and Hostiles—carries the veneer of importance and weight without ever actually delivering much of an impact. He’s a filmmaker who refuses to trust his audience to come to him, which is how you get a horror film as inert as the handsomely crafted Antlers. Cooper’s latest is about how abuse traumatizes children who have no choice but to become caretakers and fend for themselves. You’ll get that in the first twenty minutes or so, and then it’s just a really gory horror film as Cooper never builds or explores his theme in any meaningful way. Antlers ends up feeling exploitative as it takes a real issue but lacks the maturity or thoughtfulness it deserves beyond the most obvious metaphors.
Set in a dying rural town in Oregon (a sign of how little Cooper trusts his audience is how he feels the need to cram in information like this in ADR news reports so that you know this town has been ravaged by the closing of its mining operation coupled with a raging opioid epidemic), the story follows Lucas (Jeremy T. Thomas) a troubled 12-year-old boy who has a dark secret in his decrepit home. Lucas’ mother passed away and for the past three weeks, no one has seen his little brother or their father. However, there’s something in the attic of the home that needs to be fed, and Lucas feels like he’s the one who has to do it. His teacher, Julia (Keri Russell), notices the signs of abuse on Lucas, especially since she experienced it herself as a child and is still grappling with the trauma.
Cooper has the good seed of an idea here, but he has no clue on how to execute it beyond the starting point. He has the right monster for the subtext, but the subtext is so glaring and immediate that there’s really nowhere to go after the first act beyond some increasingly gruesome set pieces and the movie explaining what exactly is happening in Lucas’ household (even though the how of it doesn’t really matter because, again, this story is a clear and direct metaphor about child abuse). If Cooper had found some kind of emotional arc here or dug deeper about the nature of abuse, he could have had a much stronger film, but instead he settles for the basest, most simplistic rendering of his subject matter. Yes, child abuse is terrifying. Yes, the monster this movie creates and the slaughter that follows is gruesome. But Cooper never pushes further, which leaves the rest of the film a dull cycle of grotesque kills, minor discoveries, Lucas looking haunted, and Julia looking worried.
For example, the film is clearly drawing from a Native American myth, but it’s not about Native American characters beyond the larger “Native Americans have a connection with the Earth that most of us lack, and our abuse of the Earth has brought forth this destructive creature from their mythology.” The only Native American character is played Graham Greene, a former sheriff who exposition dumps everything about the creature to Julia and her brother Paul (Jesse Plemons), who’s the town’s current sheriff. Or you could look at what abuse means to Paul having been that younger sibling, but all we get from him is when he tells Julia, “You don’t know what happened to me,” and then he’s back to being a cop. It feels like they’re siblings partially to parallel Lucas and his brother and partially to up the emotional stakes for Julia, but there’s not much definition to their relationship. Like everything in this film, it has an interesting starting point that fails to develop further.
Like his previous films, Cooper approaches the material with a great sense of import that never seems to carry over to the quality of the storytelling. As always, these are people with dark pasts in a decaying world, and he knows how to build a frame around that. Florian Hoffmeister’s cinematography knows how to blend the grotesque with the beautiful, and you’re left wishing that these kinds of visuals were in service of a strong narrative. Cooper isn’t really even trying to scare the audience as much as he’s trying to sadden them, and these contemplative frames of death and decay convey an abuse that the film argues has radiated out from our abuse of the Earth into the abuse in our homes. Again, if Cooper found a way to build the forward rather than simply sitting in that decay, he would have had a better movie.
Antlers is yet another disappointment from the filmmaker, who has the gift of getting the audience excited through strong premises and serious craftsmanship only to fumble completely when it comes to constructing a compelling story. I don’t mind that Cooper wanted to make a monster movie that’s actually about child abuse. That makes a lot of sense. What doesn’t make much sense is putting so much time and effort into that project only to come away with the obvious conclusion that child abuse is horrific and persistent.
Antlers opens in theaters on October 29th.
KEEP READING: Watch: Guillermo del Toro and Scott Cooper Talk ‘Antlers’ and Filmmaking | Comic-Con@Home