'Antlers' review: Terrifying monster takes back seat to human horror

Keri Russell and Jesse Plemons take on deeply disturbing horror film.

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

Oregon looks miserable in "Antlers." Everything looks miserable in "Antlers," a dark, moody and deeply effective horror outing, where the gloom of the real world — full of people processing or escaping the various traumas in their life through alcohol, opioids or hard-fought avoidance of both — is just as frightening as the monster at its center.  

That monster is kept mostly hidden, a mystery waiting in the shadows until the film's jarring, intense conclusion. "Antlers" is by no means a fun experience, it's not the kind of horror film you watch while making fun of what's on screen, but it's one you won't soon be able to shake. 

Keri Russell in "Antlers."

Keri Russell plays Julia Meadows, a grade school teacher who has returned to her rural Oregon hometown and is living with her brother, Paul (Jesse Plemons, doing exasperated exceptionally well), the town's new sheriff. Julia and Paul are survivors of a difficult and abusive childhood, and Julia has more recently escaped a troubling relationship in California, all of which is hinted at the way she trembles when she contemplates giving in to the rows of alcohol bottles behind the checkout counter at her local grocery store. 

At school, she can tell her student Lucas (Jeremy T. Thomas) is in need of help. Boy is he ever: at home, Lucas' father (Scott Haze), who ran afoul with some sort of creature deep inside a mineshaft-turned-meth lab, now feeds on flesh that he requires Lucas to feed to him. (He's holding his little brother captive, as well.) Lucas, who is picked on by the classroom bully, mostly keeps to himself but hints at what's going on at home in disturbing illustrations. Julia takes on his problems as her own.

Director and co-writer Scott Cooper ("Crazy Heart," "Out of the Furnace") invests deeply in his characters, not scares, so when those scares do arrive they actually matter. He triples down on the atmosphere of his surroundings — sometimes the fog is so dense it's the only thing you can make out on screen — and he gives the story a real sense of place and purpose. And he only shows what he needs to, adding to the sense of on-screen dread, which is just as human as it is supernatural.  

It's grim stuff, obviously, a certified downer that explores the struggle and hopelessness of trudging forward after experiencing unspeakable pain. "Antlers" has no problems exploring the outward thrills of horror films — the gotchas, the jump scares, the things that go bump in the night — but it knows the real horror comes from within.  

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama

'Antlers'

GRADE: A-

Rated R: for violence including gruesome images, and for language

Running time: 100 minutes

In theaters