Dir: Scott Cooper. Starring: Keri Russell, Jesse Plemons, Jeremy T Thomas, Graham Greene, Scott Haze. 15, 99 minutes.
Somewhere, in the ever-spiralling depths of the social media platform Tiktok, you’ll find a small collection of videos purporting to capture an encounter with a skin-walker. I kept thinking about them throughout Antlers, a new horror released by Searchlight Pictures and twice delayed because of the pandemic. They share a certain DNA, in the way they both superficially delve into the vengeful forces of nature. But the stories they tell are not the right ones.
In these videos, the skin-walkers are described as wraiths of the most ferocious kind, who skulk behind forest trees and lure their victims by imitating the wounded cries of a person in distress. They’re riddled with the implicit threat of the untamed borders of civilisation, the still-unexplored wilds of the American landscape. But many of those posting the videos are white, and their fear is a form of misappropriation.
In reality, the skin-walker is a Navajo figure, and the name is used to describe witches who seek to harm and not to heal. It’s a knowledge that some in the community have been reluctant to share with outsiders, and these videos themselves seem like proof of how easily indigenous concepts become diluted and distorted. Antlers is no different. It’s a film that takes the Algonquian belief of the cannibalistic wendigo – tied to eastern and central North America – and rewrites it as a metaphor for the struggles of white, rural poverty.
Nick Antosca, who co-wrote the screenplay with C Henry Chaisson and director Scott Cooper, relocates the action of his short story The Quiet Boy from West Virginia to the Pacific northwest. The backdrop is an old coal-mining town where industry has ravaged the landscape, awakening malevolent spirits. Their curse, it’s implied, is felt through generations of abuse, poverty, and addiction – so when a boy named Lucas (Jeremy T Thomas) starts scribbling disturbing pictures of flesh-devouring bears, the school is too preoccupied with all the other neglected, malnourished children to really care.
It’s his teacher Julia (Keri Russell) who steps in as saviour, having returned home from California after the death of her abusive father in order to be reunited with her brother (Jesse Plemons). She drives up to Lucas’s home, only to be frightened away by the sounds of rattling walls and a guttural scream. Where is Lucas’s father? Or even his brother? Are they the source of these noises?
Cooper, who has regularly delved into the dark side of American mythicism with films like Hostiles and Out of the Furnace, collaborated with several indigenous consultants on Antlers, including filmmaker Chris Eyre. But there’s no escaping the fact that the wendigo of his film is a pop-culture fantasy – an antlered creature tied to European werewolf myths. The true wendigo – a corrupted, humanoid figure with an insatiable hunger for flesh – is a spirit of greed and a manifestation of moral violation. This is crucial to Antlers because, by losing that specificity, the film loses its power. It becomes a muddled collection of ideas, about both inherited trauma and environmental disaster, and increasingly disconnected from the creature at its core. The film even slyly acknowledges that fact, by featuring a single scene where a First Nations actor, Graham Greene, expresses disbelief that a wendigo would even be tormenting a white child, before dutifully explaining the myth for audiences watching.
There are measured performances here by both Russell and Plemons, two unfailingly talented actors, and a host of well-crafted practical effects that explain why producer and horror veteran Guillermo del Toro would take such an interest in the project. But all the trickery in the world can’t conceal how inauthentic Antlers feels at heart.