Antlers (2021)

I wanted to start this off with a fun fact: I keep a monster locked in my basement. It mewls and growls, and I appease it by bringing it roadkill or whatever dead animals I can find. I don’t do this out of a desire to keep it prisoner, but rather to show I love it and want to take care of it. Feeding is how we interact; I throw the bodies in and whisper through the door how much I love it while I listen to the crunching and violent chewing it makes as it rends the flesh.

All of this is made much weirder by the fact I live in an apartment and don’t have a basement.

Julia Meadows is a teacher at a middle school in rural Oregon. The victim of child abuse, she returned home to live with her brother, the recently elected sheriff, after the death of her father. The town is rundown, wallowing in poverty, struggling to overcome the ongoing opiate addiction crisis that is ripping apart America. There is hope that the local mine will be reopened, because as society fails, the one thing we can all count on is jobs at the expense of the environment. There really isn’t much going for this little town, which seems locked in perpetual damp under gray, foreboding skies.

So of course, Julia takes an interest in one of her students, a young Lucas Weaver, who happens to be the son of a poor drug addict. Lucas is withdrawn, sullen, and bullied, and he spends his time drawing horrific images of monsters that Julia recognizes as signs of abuse. Due to her own history, she focuses on Lucas, only to eventually discover the terrible truth, that there is something monstrously wrong in Lucas’ home, and it is very, very hungry. Can you guess what’s going to get loose? I bet you can.

When I saw this film, I was one of two people in the theater, and once the gore hit, the other person walked out. I guess she didn’t know what to expect, but this movie doesn’t hold back. People are less killed and more mangled beyond recognition. The town coroner plays a bit role through the film, and even though you know he’s seen some shit, this guy struggles to understand what he’s looking at. Which makes sense, because I’m looking at it, and holy crap, I can barely understand how a body could look like that. While Antlers has a lot of elements playing out across a variety of potential themes and readings, one thing is not in question: it’s body horror, and it wants you to know it. You’re gonna see those antlers, and they’re gonna rip and wear flesh in ways you aren’t expecting.

In terms of gore and effects, Antlers is way harsher and cooler than I thought. At the first massacred corpse, I found myself shocked at how hard it was going. When you finally get a full on shot of the creature for the big reveal, artfully done for the final showdown, I got giddy over how big and nasty the killer critter is. Unfortunately, the film flounders in what feels like a weak final battle, only to then throw in another twist that makes me forgive how easily dispatched the big nasty was. Yes, I judge how tough final battles are, because as devastated as they are by this point, I want to feel that the protagonist is really having to throw everything at the unstoppable force they are facing. And while at first Antlers did not satisfy in this regard, it then reveals the really nasty part about its central monster.

Is it perfect? God no. Antlers has a jumble of themes going on, some of which are practically beating you over the head. Critics aimed their ire at this; it’s a movie about abuse and trying to heal by helping others through trauma. Yes, we get it. It’s also about the dangers of addiction, with the big bad in question serving as the ultimate representation in folklore of specific Native American tribes. It’s a thing that consumes and consumes and only gets hungrier and hungrier as a result, much like the citizens of the small town making and feeding on meth and opiates and unable to escape themselves and their circumstances. To a lesser extent we also get some discussion on society’s impact on nature, as the creature initially resides in a mine about to be reopened to save a dirty town surrounded by natural beauty. Expect shots of beautiful vistas ruined by clear cut trees in the foreground, or gorgeous mountainsides blighted by crumbling industrial facilities falling to rust and ruin.

Some of the reviews aimed at the film criticize it for “poverty porn” as the people of this small town are as decayed as the buildings; this makes me wonder if some of the critics who leveled this argument have actually been outside the suburbs, because while it isn’t exactly Deliverance bad out there, rural America isn’t a happy place to live as our citizens flock to our cities for work and our industries dry up or flee elsewhere for cheap labor. The Rust Belt earned its name, and addiction and drug production run rampant, because what else is there to do when you can’t escape the poverty of a collapsing region?

The bigger question is how does Antlers handle using indigenous folklore, and, well, it does flounder here. There is only one First Nations actor in the film, the supremely talented Graham Greene, and he shows up early to provide information and then abruptly vanishes as soon as he gives the white folks info on the monster. He’s not even killed, he’s just out of the movie. This was a wasted opportunity, both to feature more of Greene as the retired sheriff who seems way more competent than the new guy, as well as to showcase more First Nations actors in various roles since you’re dealing with indigenous folklore. I suppose there is an argument to be made about the myths and tales of native peoples having a significant and wider impact on North American culture as a whole not automatically being a bad thing, particularly in cases where cultures were otherwise wiped out or forcibly converted or relocated by expansionist governments hungry for more and more territory (sounds like something I just wrote about…), but come on. Employ more indigenous actors in non-stereotypical roles. It’s all I’m asking.

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