Scott Cooper’s foray into horror is a brooding successful one
Scott Cooper is a filmmaker that has managed to capture the reality of rural America unlike many of Hollywood’s directors. From Crazy Heart (2009), to Out of the Furnace (2013), and even his Western Hostiles(2017), Cooper has tapped into a perspective of America that has been oversimplified in these tense political times. His latest feature, Antlers (2021) steps into horror for the first time, mixing his own social commentaries of isolated communities with the creature feature scares of producer Guillermo Del Toro.
Antlers takes place in a small mining town in Oregon. The town is reeling from the shut mine, the spread of drug addiction, and a hurt environment. Julia (Keri Russell) is a schoolteacher who has moved back to town and is living with her sheriff brother (Jesse Plemons). One of the kids at Julia’s new school is the recluse and tortured Lucas (Jeremy T. Thomas), who captures Julia’s curiosity and worry; little does she know the monstrous secret Lucas is keeping.
Antlers has been delayed multiple times, even before the COVID-19 pandemic. However, it has finally arrived and delivers a middle ground of blockbuster horror with subtle dread. Cooper slides into the horror genre with relative ease, his restrained use of his camera preferring to focus on bloodstained floors or gloomy hallways rather than constantly looking at bodies or monsters. This allows him to create a dark atmosphere that truly envelops viewers. As with Cooper’s previous films, there is an adeptness with his aesthetic at making beautiful ugly things. The decrepit and crumbling town is made wonderous and hypnotic with the wide shots, showing the looming mountains and trees.
Antlers makes comments on the urgencies and crippling dangers of climate change and the opioid crisis, but at its core there is an exploration of a generational trauma that is being left to the kids of today. This follows Cooper’s nihilism from his previous filmography, although perhaps it appears more realistic regarding the clashing crises of current events. Unlike Del Toro, Cooper isn’t too keen on looking to pity his monsters as much as lead viewers to an understanding of their existence. It is in this justification that the social messages buried beneath the blood and bones are extirpated.
You can tell that Cooper greatly enjoys inhabiting Antlers’ world, playing around with its characters. It is only when Antlers is forced to follow more conventional horror tropes and routes that you sense the filmmakers lose interest and their grasp on the story. It is in these moments that the film might feel more like a mainstream action or thriller flick rather than the brooding reflection it much clearly would rather be. Russell and Plemons clearly relish these moments as well, where they can contemplate and stew over their character traumas, instead of being yanked into by-the-numbers beats. There is a tug of war between these two visions towards the second act and resolution, leading to a slight disappointment compared with the patient and creeping beginning.
In the end, Antlers is an effective horror film that is worth the wait. You sense a clashing of tones and direction within the narrative; however, this doesn’t compromise the core tenets of the film, or dilute its central and timely themes. Cooper once again demonstrates an admirable hand at exploring the underbelly of American life with style and genre unlike many directors can do today.