Review: Blue-collar horror film Antlers is one of the grossest films of the year, by any measure

Keri Russell plays Julia Meadows.Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

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  • Drink
  • Directed by Scott Cooper
  • Written by Scott Cooper, Henry Chaisson and Nick Antosca
  • Featuring Keri Russell, Jesse Plemons and Jeremy T. Thomas
  • Classification R; 99 minutes
  • Theatrical releases October 29

Drink is a coarse film. There are pools of blood, buckets of guts, piles of flesh, and enough gutted bodies to start your own junior coroner’s office. But the movie is eeeeeghghgh the quality doesn’t end with his onscreen guts – Antler’s grossness extends to his script’s collection of overused but underdeveloped themes, and a visual style that coughs and gurgles poverty fetishism and porn. Come in clean, but leave a permanent layer of dirt under your fingernails.

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

Based on the short story by Nick Antosca The quiet boy, director Scott Cooper’s horror film presents itself as a modern-day American myth. We know this because the film opens with Julia (Keri Russell), a rural Oregon schoolteacher, talking to her students about the importance and endurance of American myths. Okay, that’s not quite true: the movie 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 set up in a coal mine abandoned. This is 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 coping. He’s obviously troubled – he spends his days drawing scenes that would make Hieronymus Bosch blush – but it’s unclear what the state of his family life is. Or why we see Lucas regularly drag dead animals to his attic and then run away. With the help of her sheriff brother Paul (Jesse Plemons), Julia begins to investigate what is going on at Lucas’ house.

The thematic underpinnings of Antlers crumble as the story opts for dark gore over substance.French Kimberley/Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

The answer, which Cooper teases for a moment before smuggling Canadian actor Graham Greene and puking some show value, is ultimately just another big bad monster story. And though I won’t reveal exactly which mythical beast Drink is concerned – although you’re welcome to make an educated guess based on the film’s title – it’s a creature that even novice horror fans have seen countless times before. The only twist this time around is that Cooper (Hostile, Out of the oven) manages to smother its story with two longstanding obsessions — blue-collar rot and the imprint of Native culture on American storytelling — without honestly exploring either.

On paper, Cooper’s twinned interests make sense. The filmmaker was born in a small town in Appalachian Virginia, the grandson of a coal miner. And Cooper is showing at least a modicum of reverence for Native culture and representation by throwing Greene here, not, say, asking Plemons or Russell to crack the case after Googling “Native American Monster.” But the film’s thematic underpinnings crumble as the story repeatedly opts for dark gore over anything near substance.

Russell, Plemons, and especially young Thomas excel at highlighting the emotional and spiritual fissures that can result from living in a community that is easy to ignore and dismiss. But there is ultimately a hollow disease to Drink – a film intended to induce gasps and gags, but at the same time produced so superficially that it chokes with its own ambitions.

In the interest of consistency between reviews from all critics, The Globe has eliminated its star rating system in film and theater to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance . Instead, Works of Excellence will be noted with a Critic’s Pick designation throughout the cover.

Elizabeth J. Harless