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Keri Russell plays Julia Meadows.Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

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  • Antlers
  • Directed by Scott Cooper
  • Written by Scott Cooper, Henry Chaisson and Nick Antosca
  • Starring Keri Russell, Jesse Plemons and Jeremy T. Thomas
  • Classification R; 99 minutes
  • Opens in theatres Oct. 29

Antlers is a gross film. There are pools of blood, buckets of guts, piles of flesh, and enough eviscerated bodies to start your very own junior coroner’s office. But the film’s eeeeeghghgh quality isn’t limited to its on-screen viscera – Antler’s gross-ness extends to its screenplay’s slop-bucket collection of overused but underdeveloped themes, and a visual style that cough-gurgles poverty-porn fetishism. Go in clean, but leave with a permanent layer of dirt under your fingernails.

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Jesse Plemons, left, plays Paul Meadows, Juila's brother. Jeremy T. Thomas plays Lucas Weaver, one of her students.Kimberley French/Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

Based on Nick Antosca’s short story The Quiet Boy, director Scott Cooper’s horror movie presents itself as a modern-day American myth. We know this because the film opens with rural Oregon school teacher Julia (Keri Russell) talking to her students about the importance and stamina of American myths. Okay, that’s not exactly true: the film actually opens with a scene set three weeks earlier, in which an adorable seven-year-old boy named Aiden (Sawyer Jones) accompanies his loving but unfit father Frank (Scott Haze) to a meth lab that’s been set up in an abandoned coal mine. It’s there where Frank and Aiden are attacked by … something.

Flash-forward, and Aiden’s 12-year-old brother Lucas (Jeremy T. Thomas) is in Julia’s English class, barely holding it together. He’s obviously troubled – his days are spent drawing scenes that would make Hieronymus Bosch blush – but it’s not quite clear what the situation is with his home life. Or why we see Lucas regularly dragging animal corpses up to his attic, and then scurrying away. With the help of her sheriff brother Paul (Jesse Plemons), Julia begins to investigate just what is going on in Lucas’s household.

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Antlers’ thematic underpinnings buckle as the story opts for gloomy gore over substance.Kimberley French/Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

The answer, which Cooper teases out for a while before just having Canadian actor Graham Greene pop by and vomit a barf-bag’s worth of exposition, is ultimately just another big-bad monster story. And while I won’t reveal exactly which mythical beast Antlers is concerned with – though you’re welcome to make an educated guess based on the film’s title – it is a creature that even novice horror fans have seen countless times before. The only twist this time around is that Cooper (Hostiles, Out of the Furnace) gets to smother his tale with two long-favoured obsessions – blue-collar rot and Indigenous culture’s stamp on American storytelling – without honestly exploring either.

On paper, Cooper’s twinned interests make sense. The filmmaker was born in small-town Appalachian Virginia, the grandson of a coal miner. And Cooper displays at least a modicum of reverence for Indigenous culture and representation by casting Greene here, and not, say, having Plemons or Russell crack the case after Googling “Native American monster.” But the film’s thematic underpinnings buckle as the story repeatedly opts for gloomy gore over anything approaching substance.

Russell, Plemons and especially the young Thomas excel at highlighting the emotional and spiritual fissures that can result from living in an easy-to-ignore, easier-to-disdain community. But there is a ultimately a hollow sickness to Antlers – a film intended to provoke gasps and gags, but at the same time so superficially produced that it chokes on its own ambitions.

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a Critic’s Pick designation across all coverage.

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