‘Antlers’ Review: Keri Russell In Scott Cooper’s Classy Horror Movie

Mess with imposing figures in the mythical lore of the ancient Native American tribes at your great peril —that would seem to be the message of Antlers, a classy horror outing that’s perceptively cast and particularly attentive to the dead-end realities of a once-prosperous Oregon mining town.

Searchlight no doubt will trumpet the involvement of executive producer Guillermo del Toro as much as possible — and his influence is palpable — but the prevailing mood of director Scott Cooper’s latest is somber in the way it reflects the sorry state of things for the working class in places that time has passed by. The film was the closing-night attraction at the American Cinematheque’s Beyond Fest in Los Angeles.

Cooper examined the woes of a formerly flourishing industry town in Out of the Furnace, in 2013, and the feel here is also very much one of a community that’s been left by the wayside with no hope in the offing. There’s nothing happening in this former coal mining town, and the best anyone can do is to tread water and, frankly, look for a way out.

One citizen still dedicated to improving this forlorn state of affairs is Julia Meadows (Keri Russell), a middle school teacher (and recovering alcoholic) who’s got a problem child on her hands by the name of Lucas (Jeremy T. Thomas — no relation to the great British producer!). A clammed-up loner, Lucas in his classwork conjures up very disturbing images that suggest great distress, this at a time when Julia’s police chief brother Paul (Jesse Plemons) is confounded by the accumulation of dismembered bodies in a nearby forest.

One striking aspect of the way the table is laid here is that customary authority figures — top cop and teacher — are portrayed as being unresourceful to the point of powerlessness in dealing with the issues confronting them. Julia wears her insecurity like a sweater she can never remove, while Paul, the man ostensibly in charge of maintaining order and pursuing malfeasance in town, admits to being utterly clueless. Not that the man automatically should possess a solution to a genuinely perplexing crime problem, but he inspires not a drop of confidence that he would be up to any real challenge. As the story’s lead protagonists, they’re quite the ill-equipped duo.

Which is not good news, because some pretty heavy stuff is about to come down. In her tentative, worried manner, Julia makes a bit of headway with Lucas, and the film takes the time and attention to allow her to get a bit closer to this damaged kid. Based on his previous work, Cooper’s genuine interests and talents would seem to reside more in the realm of character work and the exploration of real-life dramatic territory rather than with colorfully resurrecting hypothetical evil spirits.

But that’s what godfather Del Toro is around for, and his hand increasingly is felt as the ancient local legend of “Wendigo” moves to the fore.

The backstory here involves evil spirits and the transformation of people possessing them into elk-headed, human-eating creatures. There is a degree of tension between the realistic depiction of genuine human suffering in the here-and-now and the horror-fantasy aspect represented by the mythical beings. Cooper’s interests and talents clearly lie with the former and represent the stronger, more engaging part of the film, but Del Toro has indisputably put his stamp on the latter to significant degree in the final stretch in a way that will delight genre fans.

But even though it’s nominally a genre item, the film most strongly registers in conveying the dispossessed and sidelined members of society as being at a virtual loss to cope with their problems, both material and psychological. When two of the most important aspects of a society — education and physical security — essentially are absent from citizens’ lives, what do you have? Not much, and that’s the scariest part of Antlers.

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