Pray it desires not you.
Teacher Julia Meadows (Keri Russell), recently returned to her small hometown in Oregon, becomes concerned when one of her students, Lucas Weaver (Jeremy T. Thomas), becomes withdrawn and starts producing creepy drawings of bloody mayhem as kids in horror movies are wont to do. He’s also taken to collecting roadkill and taking it home, which is really a whole ‘nother level of strange. Suspecting that the kid is dealing with domestic abuse, and in turn, reminded of the abuse she and her brother Paul (Jesse Plemons) suffered at the hands of their father, she decides to look into Lucas’s situation. But what she uncovers is far more horrifying than she ever expected …
… in theory, at least.
I have a lot of problems with what might be termed misery tourism, in which well-meaning liberal filmmakers attempt to shine a light on The Plight of the Poors or some other disenfranchised demographic, and Antlers is essentially misery tourism dressed up for Halloween. Writer and director Scott Cooper, Crazy Heart (2009), has given us a dirge in the tone of last year’s Hillbilly Elegy but much more self-serious, presenting an economically depressed milieu where everyone is miserable, drugs are rife, employment prospects poor, and the futures of the children in Julia’s class somewhat less than bright.
Into this, he weaves the Wendigo myth, a Native American folk tradition. Wendigos are spirits of hunger, greed, gluttony, and famine; ravenous cannibals who stalk human prey. Some traditions say that a person can become a Wendigo by consuming human flesh, developing an insatiable appetite for man-meat, and this is the vein that Cooper is tapping — young Lucas’ father Frank (Scott Haze) and little brother Aiden (Sawyer Jones) were possessed by the creature when it manifested in the disused mine where Frank set up his meth lab (I told you — misery tourism). Now, Lucas has them locked up in the ramshackle family home, and you better believe there are cars up on blocks in the yard, brother. The roadkill he’s been collecting is to feed them — shades of the Stephen King short story Gray Matter, which was recently adapted into an episode of Shudder’s Creepshow.
The problem is that just as the film’s setting feels like a rich guy’s idea of poverty, lacking in nuance and insight, the treatment of the Wendigo feels like a white guy’s idea of Native American culture (to be clear, I am doubleplus white, folks). For one thing, he’s got the location wrong; the Wendigo is a feature of East Coast and Great Plains cultures, not the Pacific Northwest. Specificity counts, and for all that Cooper has spoken of his interest in and respect for Native American culture and history — clock his previous film, the historical drama Hostiles (2017) — here he’s gone for a vague and generic “Indian” vibe, rather than tying his story to an actual extant tradition. It’s actually dispiriting to see poor Graham Greene, Dances with Wolves (1990), wander into frame to dispense some arcane wisdom to the whiteys — Antlers doesn’t even deign to tell us who the local Nation is.
The opportunity to use the Wendigo as a metaphor is squandered, too. The Wendigo story is a proscription against cannibalism specifically, but more broadly against preying on your own kind at all — hurting the tribe for the betterment of the individual — hence the wrinkle that cannibals can become Wendigo — you break the taboo, you become the monster. You can do a lot with that, especially in an impoverished community, and the idea of Frank as a predator preying on his own — he’s a meth dealer, after all — is touched on but never concretized. Here, the Wendigo is a transmissible curse à la the invisible thing in It Follows (2014), and personal transgression does not seem to factor in — if nothing else, I can’t imagine what little Aiden did to deserve his fate.
Ultimately, this is a swing and a miss, and it irks because the potential for something better is clearly apparent to the tuned-in viewer. It feels lazy and unintentionally but markedly exploitative, and at the same time really impressed with itself. We get some good performances from Russell and Plemons, and the creature design is pretty impressive, but that’s not enough to save this one. I suspect that if we’d gotten this in, say, the ‘90s horror boom, it might’ve made the grade, but in 2021 it just doesn’t fly.
2 / 5 – Average
Reviewed by Travis Johnson