Antlers (2021), directed by Scott Cooper and based on the short story ‘The Quiet Boy’ by Nick Antosca, has in its promotion highlighted the production role of Guillermo del Toro, to whose films Antlers shares some similarities but shows some differences. Like a number of del Toro’s movies the principal backstory concentrates on children growing up in difficult circumstances, but the delivery here is darker and more desolate than del Toro’s presentations. That for me personally is not a problem, I like bleak movies. Another difference is that even though there is potential there for it, Antlers does not really share del Toro’s sympathy for monsters. Again personally I have no problem with that, but had the film been longer I would have liked to have seen more indication of the character of Frank Weaver (Scott Haze) and his relationship with his children prior to the strange and brutal circumstances that befell them.
Frank Weaver, a single father following the death of his wife, supports his family by brewing and selling Methamphetamine in a town in Oregon that has been beset by social and economic difficulties (actually filmed in beautiful British Columbia). Whilst in an abandoned mine that he uses as a lab, he encounters a very strange and very dangerous creature. His colleague and his son Aiden (Sawyer Jones) are both also attacked, his drug partner being killed outright. Following the assault, Frank and Aiden begin to sicken and grow increasingly feral. Locked into a room, they are cared for by another son Lucas (Jeremy T. Thomas) who brings food to them, which in the case of the father often consists of roadkill. Dealing with being a young home carer to his father and sibling in the weirdest and direst of circumstances, as well as coping with the grief of losing his mother, has a noticeable effect on the child. He is overly thin and his clothing is threadbare. Small, quiet, insular, poor and unconventional, Lucas is sadly the target of bullying. This concerns his new teacher Julia Meadows (Keri Russell) who has returned to the town where she grew up, sharing her childhood home with her brother Paul Meadows (Jesse Plemons) following the death of her father. A victim of childhood abuse herself at the hands of her father (her mother dying whilst Julia and Paul were still children) upon seeing the character and condition of Lucas as well as his grisly drawings, fears that the boy may be a victim of abuse at home. The school principal (Amy Madigan) pops around the child’s home to assess the situation and that is when hell breaks loose.
The delivery of the film situates itself between a slow-burn social realism horror and a more mainstream creature-feature, which doesn’t in this instance for me completely work. The horror SFX are fairly visceral and delivered well enough but they seem somehow a bit out of place. I would have preferred more of the gore and violence to have been implied rather than shown, but the literal nature of the beast in this film is bloody so a proportion of viewers may have felt that to remove this component would dull the film. Again, because of treading two stylistic paths it could perhaps be felt that not enough characterisation was given to certain roles, situations and backstories. The amount of attention given to Julia and Paul’s own childhood trauma and grief feels perhaps underrepresented but film has a limited timescale generally and the time allocated for the overall narrative is enough where Antlers is concerned; if this film were any longer it would be too long. This is not because it is a bad film that I wanted to end as soon as possible, but because the horror aspect of it that dominated the final third played out following familiar tropes in a more conventional horror film manner and in that sense did not offer anything really that has not been seen before.
Because the story is based on the lore of the Wendigo of some Native North American peoples, but has been made by predominantly non-native creators and cast there is the risk of potential exploitation / appropriation and of colonial-hangover misrepresentations of the ‘Other’. Although some viewers / readers may feel generally weary and wary of sociopolitical considerations in film-making and reviews, if as a creative you are inspired to write about and film an aspect of another culture, whether for fiction or documentary purposes, I believe there is a duty of being sensitive, respectful and factually correct. (Personally as an artist who frequently works with the folklore and legends of varied cultures, I don’t believe that non-sacred lore is necessarily off-limits to representation by someone of a different society or ethnicity nor that mythic representation should be racially segregated at all, but I do believe that it is important that appropriate attention is given to the beliefs and considerations of other people and that no exploitation occurs.)
I watched Antlers with my girlfriend Erin, who has Mi’kmaq ancestry and who holds an interest in Wendigo mythology, and I was curious to see what her opinion of the film would be. There is the matter that the main protagonists are all white, with the only First Nation character, Warren Stokes (Graham Greene) seemingly only being there to give exposition to the police and school teacher regarding Wendigo lore upon seeing the child’s drawings and the medicine protection put up in the tunnel meth lab. The main family in this film could have been Native American, but if them alone, a risk there would be a negative representation as the family were socially troubled and the father (though perhaps by necessity to provide for his family) was a criminal. To have all the cast Native American could’ve been a possibility but that would remove the discovery and shock element of the supernatural invading regular life for the Wendigo concept would likely have already been familiar to all concerned. However, due to the relevance of native belief to the film’s core it would have been good to see a stronger First Nation role and presence. Although the Wendigo is a spirit, it is not a sacred figure as such so the film does not demonise a god or religious tenet. The Wendigo myth though is more than just a fireside bogey man story for it represents a Taboo – a forbidden practice – namely that of cannibalism. In times of famine some Native American tribes would hold a ceremony to remind and warn of the prohibition and spiritual danger of anthropophagy.
For Erin, the meteorological setting of the film was brought into question, for winter is seen more as the time of starvation and would have befit the film better. Set at the dirty end of autumn, Jack o’ Lanterns still on display rather than Christmas decorations, there is a chill in the air and damp a plenty, which does certainly add to the bleak atmosphere, but a wintry setting would perhaps represent desperate hunger more. The social realist aspect of the plight of the afflicted family with Lucas’ emaciated condition and desperation to find food for his increasingly ravenous family does symbolically relate to the myth as perhaps does the father’s production of methamphetamine- a drug that can diminish appetite replacing it with a craving addiction and in the cases of prolonged addiction lead to the emaciation of the user as if they were being devoured from inside by a possessing spirit.
The physical appearance of the Wendigo is a debated point. Warren Stokes’ description of it in the film does state that it can take different forms. This applies also according to the old lore. In some cases it humanoid but very wizened and gaunt, in other tales it is seen as a gigantic figure and in others more animal than man. The antlers which give the film its name and one of the strongest individualistic representations of the Wendigo are not always to be found in the older myths. For Erin and many though, the antlers are an integral factor in the form and nature of the Wendigo. Its representation in the film is done well enough and the final transformation from human form into that of the monster is a distinctive element of the movie, though I myself am undecided whther it revealed too much and that less would be more or whether it is needed for the film to make a distinctive stamp on the cinematic genre.
In conclusion, I think I liked Antlers but did not love it. Further viewings may endear it to me more or possibly leave me colder. It promised more than it delivered, that there was something not quite fulfilling about it but perhaps that is the way it should be, like a Wendigo hunger that cannot be satiated and always a craving for more.
Review by Andy Paciorek & Erin Sorrey