In a town already close to death, things are about to go from bad to worse.
Operating a meth lab out of an abandoned mine in Oregon, Frank Weaver (Scott Haze) and his partner encounter something else in the tunnels with them, an otherworldly presence that attacks him and his youngest son Aiden (Sawyer Jones). A few weeks afterward, middle-school teacher Julia Meadows (Keri Russell) notices a boy named Lucas (Jeremy T. Thomas) displaying signs of abuse she is unfortunately familiar with, including monstrous drawings he keeps to himself. Dismissed by her brother Paul (Jesse Plemons) — also the local sheriff — as well as her school’s principal to take her seriously, a determined Julia visits the family home of Lucas Weaver… and whatever is making those sounds behind a heavily locked door.
Expanded from the short story “The Quiet Boy” by Nick Antosca, Guillermo del Toro produced the film under the direction of Scott Cooper. Serious expansion needed to occur to pad the running time to feature-film length, but more than a few of the changes are curious, especially in light of a setting change, the scope of the main character, and other factors. With elements of neglect and abuse in a setting where a once-thriving community is already devouring itself, something more ravenous is intent on speeding the town toward its demise. Will the demons who haunt Julia haunt viewers as well, or should the entire idea have been left buried in an abandoned mine?
In a once-promising community where corporate money has made an exit, Antlers begins with a condemnation of the desperation townsfolk suffer when their options have walked away through no fault of their own. Those who could go have already left, leaving less opportunity and more complications for those who can’t. Between plentiful drugs to abuse, a lack of jobs, and zero money for policing or protective services, the well-being of a single child can easily go overlooked. It is here a mythical beast appears to finish the job, from a populace metaphorically devouring itself to one most literal. To those who understand and know the truth about such places, the creature is the least scary thing about it; it’s merely a form given to what everyone refuses to see until it can no longer be ignored… assuming there’s anyone left.
Relocating the setting 2400 miles due west of the short story’s West Virginia location is both telling and unsettling. Is it more acceptable for viewers to believe Oregon is a place with abandoned mining towns and secrets being kept, or is it because almost no one knows where West Virginia is and content with their lack of knowledge? Whatever the reason, the similarities are as uncanny; cue flag-waving patriot saying such things can’t happen in the United States of America. While the story serves as a platform to showcase the problem, the suggested solution seems to be more of prevention than elimination or containment after the fact; Pandora’s box is notoriously difficult to close.
The entire cast is up to the task, along with a production crew doing the best they can with practical and special effects, not to mention a haunting tribal score by Javier Navarrete. Working against the narrative are some old crutches, such as an all-knowing Native American — played by go-to wise-man actor Graham Greene — who just happens to have a picture book and details of the ancestral critter in question. Fortunately, the performance of Jeremy T. Thomas carries the piece with the weight of the world on his shoulders, a child thrust into adulthood when there were no adults he could turn to.
Antlers is rated R for violence including gruesome images, language, and the gift that keeps on taking.
Three skull recommendation out of four