After multiple delays due to COVID-19, Scott Cooper’s latest film, Antlers, is finally upon us all. I remember seeing the teaser trailer ALL THE TIME (now it’s Eternals and Top Gun: Maverick, with the latter being more annoying since it got delayed to 2022) before the pandemic hit and being immediately swept away by its lush cinematography and immersive sound design. And now that I’ve watched it, those were the elements that hypnotized me as the film started. Like most of the movies that make Scott Cooper’s oeuvre, it doesn’t try to do much, but through its visuals and minimalist performances, it’s able to pull us in much, much quicker than most supernatural thrillers made today.
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A terrifying opening sequence sickens Frank Weaver (Scott Haze) with a disease that progressively makes him transform into a Clicker from The Last of Us (literally what he looks and sounds like for about 80% of the movie). After that, the film focuses on Lucas Weaver (Jeremy T. Thomas), who now has to keep his father and brother (Sawyer Jones) locked away as they are both infected and dangerous. He kills small mammals and collects roadkill to feed them, with this experience slowly perverting his mind and filling his head with dark thoughts on what they can become. Meanwhile, Lucas’ teacher, Julia (Kerri Russell), becomes concerned once she sees a notebook with violent drawings and books on animal trapping and dangerous spirits. She enlists the help of her brother Paul (Jesse Plemons), the local sheriff, investigating a series of murders possibly linked through Frank, to figure out what’s going on. And what they find is pretty frightening.
There’s no denying that Scott Cooper knows how to create a good atmosphere, and it’s crucial for a horror film where most of its plot will be conveyed through its visuals rather than its script. And it’s a great strength to have, mainly when your dialogues are filled with clichés. Most of Antlers‘ dialogue-heavy sequences are the worst parts of the movie, plucked straight out of a “Horror Films 101” book, as if writers C. Henry Chaisson, Nick Antosca, and Cooper were this unconfident at making a horror movie. It’s a shame because Cooper has been preparing for a horror film since 2013’s Out of the Furnace. Black Mass was a legitimately terrifying picture and his masterpiece. So it’s only natural for him to make a supernatural thriller that will demonstrate his best visual skills, especially when you have Guillermo del Toro as a mentor. Del Toro has mastered the art of crafting a fully-realized world before plunging its audience inside his mind. The world is there, and Antlers looks completely immaculate on the big screen.
2021 has been an incredible year for cinematography, with many directors of photography pushing the boundaries of how we should look at a frame or completely reinvent the wheel of digital photography. Titane, Dune, Wrath of Man, Army of the Dead, Malignant, and Cruella have shown us how great digital camerawork can be when the cinematographer understands the medium. Florian Hoffmeister’s work in Antlers is amongst the best of the year and should be in contention for an Academy Award nomination. Of course, it’s an absolute longshot since the movie’s initial reception seemed relatively tolerable, but Hoffmeister’s lens is patient and quickly envelops us in the movie’s fictionalized world before anyone ever utters a word. The movie’s opening shots linger on Lucas while strange noises lurk in the background. We won’t know what these “noises” really are until the end of the film but coupled with detailed tracking shots of a grey and pessimistic Oregon town, and it’s not hard for us to immediately want to know more about its strange noises and the dark secret they may hold.
Cooper also knows how to bring the best out of their actors. While Kerri Russell and Jesse Plemons feel underused, they make the most of their screentime and share terrific (non)-chemistry together as two siblings drifting further away from the love they had as children. It’s particularly heartbreaking to watch Plemons wanting to care about Julia’s behavior, but her emotional distance makes their communication almost impossible. 2021 was the year for terrific cinematography, genre cinema, but I believe we also say that 2021 has been the year of Jesse Plemons. He has been spectacular in every film he has starred in this year. From his show-stealing impression of Werner Herzog in Jungle Cruise to his innocent but neglectful George Burbank in The Power of the Dog and now Antlers, what a year he’s been having. All of these movies (plus Judas and the Black Messiah) releasing this year have demonstrated Plemons’ versatility, and he’s more than comfortable in playing any role he can get his hands on, whatever the genre may be. He’s even more effective when the movie nears its nail-biting climax, as the case surrounding the murders starts to torment his mind.
However, Antlers‘ star is unequivocally James T. Thomas as Lucas, the revelation of the year in my book. His eyes recall the darkness that possessed Damien Thorn in Richard Donner’s The Omen, while his physicality is unbearable to watch. He’s an innocent child, now having to take care of his family, slowly transforming themselves into unrecognizable creatures. Once that happens, Lucas will be completely alone, with everyone else wholly ignoring him as they did before. It’s almost too good to be true when the school’s principal, played by Amy Madigan, tells Julia that nothing can be done for Lucas since he shows up every day, even if his drawings show CLEAR signs of psychological distress! Some may laugh at how stupid the principal is, but this is what happens in real life. Many children in clear need of help feel neglected by their superiors since they don’t care about them or want to help them in any way they can since that means paperwork! And from experience, they want to do as little paperwork as possible. And once she realizes that Lucas’ plight is a legitimate one, it may be too late since Frank has become something else entirely.
It’s disappointing to see that Antlers does not live up to its trailers when it comes to crafting a scary movie with a bigger-than-life threat. And while the menace is continuously palpable throughout, and the fully realized creature is so unpredictable you may never know when it will attack, its origins are relatively underdeveloped. One scene with Graham Greene briefly glosses over its origins, as the film keeps wanting to move to the next scene, and the next, and the next, sacrificing a potentially brilliant world (and character) building in the process. The actors are great, the film looks gorgeous, but a big chunk of it is still missing. The protagonists’ arcs are clichéd because the script is clichéd. It’s the actors and visuals that do most of the movie’s heavy lifting.
Cooper knows how to create a stunning atmosphere and uses great actors to accompany its dark settings. Unfortunately, the movie falters by anticipating the climax instead of preparing us for it. And once we do get there, the ending feels so unfulfilling since the movie kept building itself up for a revelation that would change its entire direction. Unfortunately, the revelation happened, and it changed absolutely nothing. That being said, if you’re looking to soak yourselves inside stunning visuals and a magnificently crafted soundtrack on the biggest screen imaginable, Antlers is a pretty good pick. Scott Cooper never misses, even if I would consider this to be his weakest effort yet.
Antlers is now playing in theaters everywhere.