Director Scott Cooper
Screenplay C. Henry Chaisson, Nick Antosca, Scott Cooper
Starring Keri Russell, Jesse Plemmons, Jeremy T. Thomas, Graham Greene, Scott Haze, Rory Cochrane, Amy Madigan, Scott Haze

Keri Russell, Graham Greene and Amy Madigan are not featured in enough movies. That Scott Cooper has all three in his latest and possibly best film, Antlers, is in and of itself a reason to watch. Acting is just one of many layers that this film succeeds. Cooper has directed films that range from great (Crazy Heart) to not so good (Out of the Furnace) to meh (Black Mass). The latter two were reason enough for me to stay away from the critically acclaimed Hostiles. After watching this near classic, I will go back and check that one out.

The story, taking place in the fictional town of Cispus Falls, central Oregon (actually Hope, British Columbia, which is where they filmed First Blood, and you can tell), features Russell as Julia, a teacher for the local elementary school who returned home from California after the death of her father. She has a mixture of emotions around being there in the first place, living temporarily with her brother Paul (Plemmons), the Sheriff. She left the family as soon as she could due to abuse by her father. It does not occur to her what kind of damage may have been done to her brother, but he’s turned out to be a centered, reasonable man.

One day in her class, she notices young Lucas Weaver (Thomas) has begun acting strangely. This leads to some strange and somewhat horrific discoveries. The boy’s life, terrible to begin with as his mother died and his father had been a meth dealer, just gets worse. He is bullied regularly, and is becoming emaciated while picking up dead things to bring home. Why this is happening is quite obvious, but how it is presented is with much skill and trepidation.

Cooper is no stranger to creating worn out towns, and here he manages to mix the fading civilization with mythology of the lost civilization before the U.S. planted itself atop the land. The land is still alive, however.

The acting of Antlers really brings out the story, which could have suffered in lesser hands. Russell is excellent throughout. She is curious, broken, but not close to being a fool. Thomas has the strength and fragility reminiscent of Newt from Aliens. Greene’s role is understated, and wise. Plemmons has the subtle nature to let his own character be drawn out.

Some will find the story eminently predictable. There is nothing here you haven’t seen before. There are a couple surprises in the way things are presented, and the characters all have rational reasons for making the (often predictable) decisions the plot requires they make. The ending lets us know the anticipation of disaster on the horizon.

The key to this story is the acting, the mood, and the overriding sense of earned dread. We’re not solving the problems of the world that create places as dreary as Cispus Falls. We’re just there, and scared as hell. The atmosphere is such that it gave me tangential nightmares the night I saw them. Not many films do this anymore.

(**** out of *****)

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