I don’t know that I subscribe to the idea that there are some works of prose that are “unfilmable.” This is not to say that a successsful translation from one art form to another doesn’t require a certain amount of compromise around the source material. Prose, while relying on the eyes in order to absorb the printed word (pace Braille users), is not an inherently visual medium, while film is little else. Hence, the old cinematic saw of “show, don’t tell.”
I bring all this up in the wake of viewing ANTLERS, based on what might very well be a terrific short story by Nick Antosca, but is an unspeakably dull bit of cinema. To be fair, it is beautifully shot, taking advantage of its misty rural Oregon setting, and spending a fair amount of time lingering over enchantingly glistening viscera, of which there is an abundance. It is the pacing that falters, and the storytelling that fails. Even without knowing that the tale is based on a short story, the opus feels like it has been padded out of all sense of tension, suspense, or sustained interest. What might have been intended to tantalize by being enigmatic instead produces both ennui and resentment in a viewing audience that is pushed to the limits of its patience as complicated filial relationships are brutally grafted onto Native American myths without a resulting synthesis into something richer.
As for the criminal waste of Graham Greene as the retired sheriff and keeper of those Native American myths, the less said the better to avoid the attendant irritation. That goes for Keri Russel, Jesse Plemons, Amy Madigan, and Jeremy T. Thomas. Master Thomas gives a truly remarkable performance as the lonely kid, bullied by his classmates, and desperate to hold things together at home when his father and younger brother start turning into creatures of myth that require a steady diet of freshly killed animals.
His general spookiness and withdrawn nature, which inspires the scorn of his classmates, brings out the protective instinct in Julia Meadows (Russell), who notices his behavior in her 7th-grade storytelling class. His rendition of Goldilocks and the three bears, complete with suitably gruesome drawings, puts her on high alert. As does finding a bible, a manual for trapping wild animals, and a compendium of evil spirits in his desk. Voicing her concerns to both her school principal (Madigan) and her sheriff brother (Plemons) fails to inspire either of them to step in until a series of killings gets their attention. One thing leads to another, Greene relates the pertinent myth to the differently bemused siblings, and an antler belonging to no known species is found in a carcass that has been, as one neatly character sums it up, charred, burned, and flayed. The viscera, however, glistens.
It all unfolds with a pace so deliberately slow that it makes you want to scream, making that element the most horrific to be found here. Sure, we are gifted with human remains in several states of decay and consumption (the ci-mentioned viscera), but what little dramatic build-up scarcely registers in the wasteland of plot development and clichés, fine performances wasted, and characters refuse to see what is right in front of them for what it really is. A clever premise as wasted as Mr. Greene’s participation.
N.B. The effect of having the mythical creature’s heart glow through its ribs is cool. The creature as a whole, though, when we finally see it, comes off as more of a cranky tree.
ANTLERS uses gore instead where it should have used finesse; tired jump-and-scare tropes instead of subtle writing. This Halloween release is anything but a treat.