Credit goes to Scott Cooper. A majority of serious, capital-F filmmakers would be reluctant to take an abrupt turn into full-on creature-feature territory. However, with Antlers the writer and director, who is more well-known for films like the country-singer tale Crazy Heart and 2017's nuanced Western Hostiles – conjures a fully-blooded, humanistic monster film which doesn't shy away from steaming entrails and horned monsters.
A filmmaker who has a knack for looking at American symbolism, Cooper turns his attention towards the plight of neglected industrial communities in this. Central child Lucas (an outstanding Jeremy T. Thomas) is a poor youngster who lives in a shabby Oregon town in which the work force has almost gone out of the window. His character is a perfect fit into executive producer Guillermo Del Toro's tradition of children observing the challenges of the world through the lens of a supernatural one (see Pan's Labyrinth) – confronting his father Frank's (Scott Haze) addiction to drugs and is soon confronted with even more nightmares after a close encounter with a disturbed type at an area coal mine makes Frank undergo a frightening transformation. Lucas soon finds himself caring for and fearing his father who is becoming increasingly unstable and his school instructor Julia (Keri Russell) to suspect that he's experiencing the same kind of abuse at home, and having had a similar experience in her as a child.
In the realm of things that are truly amazing, Scott Cooper doesn't skimp.
Cooper cleverly blends the real-life horrors of neglect and addiction to his fictional monsters. This results in a dark slow-burning and slow-burning film that's monster film and part psychological drama, and a gooey gorefest that is remarkable in its atmospheric depiction of a depressing life that is hopeless and bleak.
In fact, Cooper overreaches here – by referencing a specific part from Native American folklore, the positive anti-colonialist themes that are in play can be a bit simplistically mixed with the film's critiques of the way capitalism is the source of both greed and inequality. Although these factors are in some ways connected, Antlers feels cleaner in its examination of the petty white working-class people than when it makes reference to its United States' violent origins but the former isn't receiving the space it requires. In addition, even if the slow pace is effective viewers will frequently be a step over the protagonists when it comes to understanding what's happening, an incredibly frustrating experience.
In the realm of things that scare you, Cooper doesn't skimp. The effects for the creatures are quite gritty, with some groovy transformation sequences, beautifully shot in cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister, and presenting the viewers just enough to create nightmares. There's an almost Kingian flavor to this tale of children, corruption as well as Native American mythology in small-town America and, when paired with Cooper's dependable filmmaking skills and sharing del Toro's supernatural sensibilities, creates an appropriate balance of terror and dark humanity.