There is a literal monster in Scott Cooper’s Antlers, namely the wendigo: a mythological spirit from indigenous American lore that craves human flesh, sprouts horns and possesses people. But as with the best horror storytelling — think Poe, think Shelley — the supernatural element is an offshoot of prosaically human conditions like greed, abuse and theft. The wendigo is a symptom, not the disease. The disease in Antlers, set during the destructive twilight of coal, is, for starters, black lung.
Cooper sets up his theme ominously enough, with introductory text, translated from a First Nations language, lamenting, “Mother Earth has been pillaged, stripped of her life’s blood.” Shots of desiccated mountains and smoke-billowing machinery underline the message. Indications of ecological invasion and displacement continue in the movie’s periphery. An NPR report notes the continued onslaught of mountaintop removal mining, as Julia Meadows (Keri Russell), a middle school teacher in a depressed industrial town, prepares for her day. At class, she’s teaching about myths and fairytales, and a student brings up the example of the notorious porridge thief Goldilocks, and the three bears. The message, she reminds the class: “Don’t take what isn’t yours.”
Julia has recently moved in with her brother Paul, the local sheriff, whose dismal life behind the badge consists mainly of enforcing evictions. But he’s played by Jesse Plemons, and he exhibits the sort of upstanding Christian rectitude and authority with which the actor excels. He’s a sort of anchor for his sister, offering at least the illusion of stability following the death of their abusive father, to whom Julia tended until his bitter end.
Given Julia’s own history of parental death, neglect and violence — her mother, she says, died when Julia was 12 — she identifies with the malnourished, rattily clothed loner in her class. Lucas Weaver (Jeremy T. Thomas), retiring son of a sick miner and brother to a similarly ill sibling, draws morbid sketches of unorthodox families and a cannibalistic father figure whose insides are black, and with antlers bulging from the bodily murk like some demonic fetus.
When Julia finds Lucas’s notebook, she endeavors to learn more. But you know what the adage says about curiosity: In this case, it kills pretty much anybody who comes into close contact with the ramshackle Weaver household in the dark of the Oregon woods.
Adapting an obscure short story called “The Quiet Boy” by Nick Antosca, it turns out Cooper, whose filmography includes crime films (Out of the Furnace, Black Mass) and his prodigious debut Crazy Heart, has a natural ken for the beats and rhythms of horror cinema. Javier Navarrete’s score is never more than a churning drone, telegraphing little and allowing natural sounds of, say, wind howling in a mine to augment some seriously nasty, convulsive, nerve-fraying sequences.
But it’s not the effective jump scares I’ll remember the most from Antlers. It’s the movie’s ecological rage — and its sorrowful accounting of a town decimated by over-mining of fossil fuels, the ultimate real-life horror villain that won’t stay dead.
It may be set in the Pacific Northwest, but Antlers could just easily play out in Appalachia or the Rust Belt or any place of industrially ravaged, white working-class decline, where the town itself seems on life support. The only businesses captured under Cooper’s lens are a Chinese restaurant and a food mart, where Julia deploys all of her willpower not to purchase the vodka behind the counter (a backstory Cooper could have explored further).
We learn that Lucas Weaver’s father wasn’t the healthiest of men before the wendigo ate his soul: Paul Meadows describes the miner as a repeat victim of fentanyl overdose, prompting nick-of-time injections of Narcan — another miserable facet of the sheriff’s workday. Alcoholism, drug addiction, sexual abuse, the forced removal of native populations, the summary pulverizing of earth’s bounty: These are the monsters of this menacing, uncompromising portrait of American ruin. Like the infectious wendigo, hopping from host to host like a virus, they cannot be so easily extinguished.
ANTLERS. Director: Scott Cooper; Cast: Keri Russell, Jesse Plemons, Jeremy T. Thomas, Graham Greene, Scott Haze; Distributor: Fox Searchlight; Rated R;
Now playing at most area theaters