Is there a filmmaker alive who takes himself more seriously than Scott Cooper? Judging from his movies, it seems unlikely. The success of his debut “Crazy Heart” certainly put him on that path, earning three Oscar nominations and establishing his “adult drama” bona fides at the exact moment that the industry collectively pivoted to superhero movies.
But every film since has been more of a humorless affair than the previous one, and “Antlers,” his latest, is no exception. Based on Nick Antosca’s short story “The Quiet Boy” and adapted by Antosca, C. Henry Chaisson, and Cooper himself, the film takes an arboreal monster movie and turns it into a meditation on generational trauma.
It certainly helps that Cooper is an extremely skilled director who makes great use of space to generate suspense. But committed performances by Keri Russell, Jesse Plemons and extraordinary young actor Jeremy T. Thomas vividly communicate the deeper emotional stakes of “Antlers,” if somewhat unfortunately without adding an ounce of fun or excitement to its mythmaking.
Russell plays Julia Meadows, a teacher who returns to her Oregon hometown after the death of her father to take a job at the local elementary school and to reconnect with her brother Paul (Plemons), who reluctantly became sheriff while she was away. Julia and Paul share a traumatic family history that’s difficult to navigate, especially since she left him behind and fled for California as soon as she was able. But despite Paul’s tentative encouragements, she struggles to connect with her students until she focuses on Lucas (Thomas), a withdrawn little boy whose outward demeanor shows signs of the same kind of abuse that Julia suffered while she was a child.
At the same time Julia begins to establish a gentle rapport with Lucas, Paul starts discovering brutally dismembered bodies in the forests outside of town, and even the local coroner is at a loss to determine the cause of death. But when Julia calls upon the school administration to investigate Lucas’ home life, and enlists Paul as local law enforcement to try and prevent future harm, she and her brother make an unexpected discovery about a local legend that proves as hard to believe as the evidence leading them to it is hard to deny.
Guillermo del Toro and his producing partner J. Miles Dale brought this script to Cooper, and it’s easy to understand why; the story’s labyrinth of secrets and rain-soaked setting require a director like him to take them deadly seriously as a successful juxtaposition to the mythological elements that eventually take over in the last half of the film. But one of del Toro’s consistent gifts is his ability to weave a lilting magic into even his most harrowing stories, and more than that, a soupçon of impish humor that keeps them engaging instead of dirge-like. Cooper possesses neither of those skills, and if he creates an oppressive atmosphere of dread, there’s little excitement to keep audiences on the edge of their seats in a story that culminates in a confrontation that’s as fantastical as it is violent.
That said, Cooper leads the viewer to important details through his camera movement that would be expressed by a lesser filmmaker through exposition; he dwarfs characters in frames and places them in off-kilter positions to show their discomfort or vulnerability, without ever becoming theatrical or self-indulgent. Simultaneously, the script unveils its connections between past and present, myth and reality, with an almost mathematical precision as the choices the characters make alternately reflect the regret they feel or redemption they seek.
Russell gives a terrific performance as a balled-up fist of a woman who’s only starting to unclench when this young boy enters her life with telltale signs of an abuse that’s all too familiar to her. The sobriety she contemplates risking with a drink only keeps the memories more fresh in her mind, and the actress merges Julia’s justifiable resentment toward her father with her self-flagellation for leaving Paul behind in a palpable mix of anger and sadness.
Conversely, Plemons has a gift for inexpressiveness that communicates more than histrionics ever would, and he wields it expertly playing a character whose adult role as a protector feels inherited or obligated instead of actively chosen because he didn’t heal any more or better than his sister. Whether joylessly evicting families or seeking the simplest and least challenging explanation for a string of savage murders, Plemons exposes a reservoir of pain in Paul that he ignores or avoids by taking the path of least resistance.
The lead characters’ jobs reinforce their thematic roles in the story while simultaneously subverting the audience’s feeling of rescue or relief, and Cooper emphasizes with remarkable subtlety the unsettling truth that there is no cavalry to rescue the cavalry, and our caretakers can be just as vulnerable as we are even when protecting us. The director also appears to subject his child actors, especially Thomas as Lucas, to some extremely intense scenes, which speaks both to his expertise at assembling images to draw in viewers and also the pattern of self-serious verisimilitude to which he commits in all of his films.
In any case, those expecting more of a traditional monster movie based on the provocative trailers that have been playing since before the pandemic began may be disappointed by what amounts to a character study not unlike his film “Out of the Furnace,” except supported with supernatural elements. At the same time, Cooper’s own commitment to the premise and its inevitably tragic conclusions requires some fearless, occasionally shocking filmmaking choices, and he unsurprisingly does not flinch from embracing them.
“Antlers” is a handsome, meticulous, and yet overly serious entry in a horror sub-genre explored too infrequently these days; Guillermo del Toro was absolutely right to choose Cooper to bring the material to the screen, but what the film needs is more of del Toro’s own exuberance to truly bring it to life.
“Antlers” opens in U.S. theaters Oct. 29.