Antlers just as easily could’ve been called Abuse. Allegory also might’ve been an appropriate title. Whether it’s a lamb representing adoption, a monster in the basement standing for grief, or a “sunken place” for the marginalized, it feels like every modern horror film contains some subtext. Even Halloween Kills tried to force in real-world commentary on mob mentality. Of course, this isn’t anything new, as you can find allegories in Frankenstein, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and numerous other classics. What matters is how well the subject matter is tackled. While Antlers might not be the subtlest allegory for abuse, it is a skillfully made and acted one.
The always-reliable Keri Russell plays Julia, a teacher who’s still haunted by her father’s cruelty. It’s hinted that Julia used to drink her pain away, but now she finds comfort in bowls of ice cream. Julia recently moved back to her hometown to live with her brother Paul (Jesse Plemons). Paul was also likely exposed to violence growing up, although he keeps everything locked up. Plemons once again proves that few actors play understated better than him. Antlers belongs to Russell, though, and one gifted child actor.
Julia takes an interest in a tooth-pick skinny student named Lucas (Jeremy T. Thomas). With a shabby wardrobe and a notebook littered with disturbing imagery, Lucas is clearly being mistreated at home. It’s far worse than Julia expects, as Lucas’ father is transforming into a savage beast. Keeping him locked in his room, Lucas tries to satisfy his father’s bloodlust, but roadkill will only do the trick for so long. Thomas delivers an impressive cinematic debut. Even if you took out the supernatural elements, Thomas is all too convincing as a quiet boy hiding his trauma.
Aside from abuse, Antlers makes several connections to the poor treatment of Indigenous peoples. “Native Americans” is written on the chalkboard when Julia discusses Goldilocks and its moral of not taking what isn’t yours. At one point, a ginger kid who’s been mistreating Lucas gets his comeuppance while wearing a shirt portraying a Native American. Naturally, the beast within Lucas’ father is also grounded in First Nations mythology, although “myth” may be the wrong word here. While director Scott Cooper did get some input from Native American filmmaker Chris Eyre, the fact that Antlers’ core creative team is mostly white kind of sends a mixed single
Nevertheless, Cooper brings a hellish visual eye to the film, draping it atmospheric red lighting. It’s also refreshing to see Cooper mixing it up with a supernatural horror film on the heels of westerns like Hostiles, crime biopics like Black Mass, and music dramas like Crazy Heart. Producer Guillermo del Toro is no stranger to this genre, however. Antlers lacks the ambition of del Toro’s The Shade of Water, another monster movie with real-world subtext. Yet, it does possess the beautifully grotesque creature design we’d expect from a del Toro production. The performers add layers to the central metaphor, which – while obvious – is a subject worth exploring. Even if Antlers isn’t as deep as it aspires to be, its exploration of domestic monsters is effective.