Searchlight (2021) 99 min. R
Director: Scott Cooper
Screenplay: Nick Antosca, C. Henry Chaisson & Scott Cooper based on “The Quiet Boy” by Nick Antosca
Cinematography: Florian Hoffmeister; Editing: Dylan Tichenor; Score: Javier Navarrete
Stars: Keri Russell (Julia Meadows), Jesse Plemons (Paul Meadows), Jeremy T. Thomas (Lucas Weaver), Graham Greene (Warren Stokes), Scott Haze (Frank Weaver), Rory Cochrane (Dan Lecroy), Amy Madigan (Ellen Booth), Cody Davis (Clint), Sawyer Jones (Aiden Weaver), Jake T. Roberts (forensics officer), Katelyn Peterson (Young Julia)
Dirty coal has been haunting the national conversation so much recently, with obstructionist West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin blocking President Biden’s ‘Build Back Better’ agenda, due to his downhome ties to big coal corporations, which have been fluffing his family’s personal finances for generations. Consequently, America’s attendant anxieties seem to have wound themselves up into Antlers, an ambitious horror flick, dead set on placing a brand-new movie monster into the cinematic firmament. The same collective subconscious that manifested The Rake and Slender Man, has now raised The Wendigo as a new tulpa to embody our cultural woes.Visually, the story seems to be set so convincingly in some deserted coal mine town, with its abandoned businesses, long disused steel structures falling into disrepair, miles and miles of discontinued railroad tracks, and depressed economy, it’s a veritable image of a ghost town in the very heart of the rust belt, like the terrain director Scott Cooper mined for his Out of the Furnace (2013). So, imagine my surprise come to find, during my follow up research, that the Nick Antosca short story “The Quiet Boy,” which the movie’s screenplay by Antosca, Cooper, and C. Henry Chaisson, was adapted from, confirms the movie is actually set in Oregon instead of Appalachia. Oregon.Which I was convinced I’d misheard the siblings in the film mentioning earlier, ignoring the presence of so much knotty pine. As far as horror goes, one would think Oregon would be far more exploitable for its Shanghai Tunnels than its mine shafts. Maybe the makers were trying to move the wendigo legend closer north, to the frozen tundra where it’s more routinely set (the film was shot in British Columbia). But the fact that it tends to rain a lot in the Pacific Northwest is never brought into play, to add to the ‘atmosphere.’ So, when Keri Russell’s Julia Meadows says she hardly recognizes the place, we can fully concur, given our own sense of dislocation.Her brother, Jesse Plemons ironically calls it ‘our own slice of paradise,’ which seems unmistakably meant to recall the West Virginia tourism bureau’s motto, that their state’s ‘almost heaven.’ The timeframe seems as strangely off as the locale. I wasn’t sure whether things were supposed to be set in the immediate past, or whether this isolated community just hasn’t kept pace with the last twenty years of progress. They’re still sporting mullets for heaven’s sake. The film’s original 2020 release date was delayed by COVID, but still… We shouldn’t get a sense of this much lag time. Whatever the reason, this curious resetting certainly tends to blead the film of much of what would have seemed the intended meaning, after framing itself as a form of modern day environmental horror. The opening quote and ambient TVs, blaring reports of the EPA spokesman’s comprehensive plan to revive the coal industry, suggest that this is going to be a revenge tale. Big energy is depicted as having irreparably wounded Mother Earth by incessantly drilling into her, to dig out her natural resources – coal, oil, gas. Forcing Gaia to take out her vengeance on humanity for such flagrant abuse, by letting nature bite back, as in such ‘70s ecological horrors as The Day of the Animals (1977) or Night of the Lepus (1972). Choking earth’s atmosphere with the burning fossil fuels billowing from industrial smokestacks, rather than investing in renewable clean energy, has allowed some mythic thought form from Native American lore to emerge from the ether. Or, rather, crawl up from the fiery depths of the earth, like some demon from hell.
The victims may as well be possessed, as we never learn what became of the presumably disembodied spirit that attacked them in the first place. Churning up the earth has unleashed something from her bowels, like the legend of the Tommyknockers. Or miners who feared if they kept burrowing further down, they’d eventually dig right through the center of the earth, reaching hell. So, perhaps fittingly, these mine shafts are transformed into the most labyrinthine of haunted houses. While the burning lamps on the coal miner’s helmets, like the one little Luke wears to pierce the darkness when delivering meals to his incapacitated family, are used to replace the more traditional candelabras.
Child lead Jeremy T. Thomas, as Luke, is one of the most memorable horror movie kids to come down the pike in quite a while. He looks like no one else. Ashen-faced and black-eyed, he appears more ghostly than that brother who got bit. With skin stretched tight across bone, he already has the hardened features of an adult. Combined with that hungry, haunted, emaciated look from many old Depression-era photos of malnourished Appalachian kids from coal country. Malnutrition and scurvy has stunted him somehow. Exceedingly undersized for a twelve-year-old, with his hunched-up shoulders and barrel chest, he occasionally brings to mind the lead in Volker Schlöndorff’s The Tin Drum (1979). Or, some survivor of a Stalinist Holodomor. He’s a living advertisement for food insecurity in America, which I suppose befits a film about a voracious marauder, whose hunger can never be quenched, no matter how much it eats. Foraging about, in his dingy camouflage jacket, hunting and killing animals for food, he sustains his bloodthirsty, ravenous, backwoods clan on the roadkill he brings back to feed them, after they’ve become infected. Their unkempt house has come to resemble something unsavory, out of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. He’s fulfilling the role of his dead mother in keeping the menfolk fed, believing, like Julianne Moore in The Hours, that, ‘I just have to feed him and he’ll love me.’ His maternal feelings for his infected younger bro may be why he clutches that doll baby so close at night, while trying to block out the cries from his incessant hunger pangs.His father begins to fall apart, increasingly resembling a feral wild man, like those girls in Mama, which was also produced by Guillermo del Toro, who’s amassing the biggest bestiary of movie monsters ever known. Looking at the father’s bared back, like a werewolf in mid-transformation, we see right down to the bone, and beyond, at something irradiating inside him with its own radioactive light. He appears to be becoming whatever attacked him in those caves. In the picture stories Luke draws, he imagines his family transforming into wolves and bears, but, as their final meal proves, his father has become something even worse than that.The window into the kid’s internal turmoil is his class drawings, but in a clever bit built upon them, the illiterate Luke ‘reads’ his story in class, based on the pictures he’s drawn like a comic book. It’s like listening to an imaginative preschooler weave an entire epic yarn out of the images in their picture book, without ever stopping for breath, or repeating themselves. While we see the men in the Weaver house going increasingly wild, editor Dylan Tichenor cuts to star Keri Russell playing piano, as if to soothe her own savage beast, quieting her inner demons.As a recovering alcoholic who’s returned to the town she fled to take a job as a local schoolteacher, Russell displays a newly toughened demeanor, with a deepened, almost husky voice denoting too many nights downing the hard stuff, and haunted eyes rimmed with mascara. She’s beginning to resemble Brooke Shields around the edges. The actress plays with the outlines of a characterization, but the movie never fully unravels the themes it raises, such as her alcoholism, or childhood trauma at the hands of her abusive father. The educated outsider, appointed to uplift the community, she’s projecting, Silence of the Lambs style. The movie is too, especially when her character shoots her gun blindly around in the pitch dark, illuminating the interior of the caves with each blast. Russell’s Julia is trying to resolve her psychological hang-ups by helping this child in her charge. They bond over the fact that both their mothers died when they were children, but more so over the unspoken fact that their fathers both prove monsters, predators. Their destructive relationship with these beasts in human form must be resolved before they’re able to move forward with their own lives. Meanwhile, brother Plemons spends his time throwing poor local families arrear in their rent, out in the streets, as if the Eviction Moratorium had just ended. And while she claims she knows he has every right to resent her for abandoning him to their father, and he claims she doesn’t know what he did to him, we’re never clued in either, so can’t be sure why the issue is raised. Indeed, the suggestion that she may also see helping little Luke as a means of absolving herself for having abandoned her own brother to their father’s abuse, by running away when they were young, is never addressed. Though it hangs there, like one of those dangling medicine bags that don’t appear to do much good, given their expressed purpose of warding off evil. Which may be why they’re never brought into play. The movie includes one too many jump scares, with Plemons creeping up behind a startled Russell at least two times too many. But oddly, the cast is stronger than average, with Amy Madigan present to represent the failings of the school system to act on clear warning signs, and Graham Greene to relate the traditional stories of his peoples. Madigan’s wasted, but Greene gets to play a juicy Maleva part, explaining in fine detail, to the infuriatingly disbelieving white folk, how to stake the vampire through the heart.
As may be expected the characters who first become livestock feed are among the most annoying and intrusive, trespassing upon Luke’s private spaces. The Wendigo may be operating under his subconscious control, as when he toys with that talisman during the educational film at school. Since the offenders get conveniently offed whenever they’re about to discover this abandoned kid is living with no parental supervision, like Jodie Foster in The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane. Which makes the excuse the principle raises palatable, when she says plenty of kids are homeschooled, not because of COVID-19, as one might think, but to hide the signs of their parents’ meth labs. But instead of hollering cop, the way any rational thinking person would, they keep advancing, horror movie manner, through the Texas Chainsaw house, for no feasible reason and despite every outward sign warning them to turn back. As is usually the case, the most obnoxious cast members are the ones first knocked off. But given their relatively early departures, the movie isn’t left with many other characters to offer up on the chopping block. Antlers takes itself very seriously, with a heavier than average sense of gloom and doom pervading events. Which actually prevents us from taking as much fun in it as we’d like. The only humor we get is interjected by the foul-mouthed, ginger bully (Cody Davis) at Luke’s school. He’s in that proud tradition of red-headed, cinematic demon seeds, like Malachai (Courtney Gains) in Children of the Corn (1984), or those bad twins (Kai and Bodhi Schulz) who encountered the Infantata, in the first scene of TV’s American Horror Story. Or Chucky. So, it’s worth waiting around just to see how badly he bites the dust.The infection and transformation scenes have the creepy feel of the cosmic horror of H.P. Lovecraft, most notably The Color Out of Space, with spindly antlers replacing a requisite mass of writhing tentacles. Crossed with the body horror of something by David Cronenberg. Since we only see the monster in the shadows or half-light, the CG is never overexposed, so this Wendigo appears to be a great concept design. At a distance, it can resemble a cross between the never clearly discerned beast from the French cult film Brotherhood of the Wolf, and “Those We Don’t Speak Of” in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village. Especially given the giant hackles down its back.
This beast sports a glorious spread of antlers worthy of an Irish elk. He’s like a spring buck in full bloom, but one all twisted and torn. These horns deserved to be crowned with the movie’s title. And who knew stags could be this dangerous. Remember that deer attack in The Ring 2? Well, this Wendigo is like the most enraged, ‘roided out Rudolph you ever saw. A sort of retrofitted minotaur, walking about on hooves, he must have polished his horns with a pencil sharpener. They’re like entwined barbed wire – all pretty freaky for the start of hunting season. We suffer disturbing acid flashbacks to that scene in the made-for-TV Salem’s Lot (1979), where James Mason impaled Bonnie Bedelia’s father on that wall of mounted antlers.Fatally damaging however, the movie doesn’t seem quite certain as to how best to present this newfangled movie monster it’s created. In traditional terms it incorporates elements of both werewolf lore, with the emergence of mans’ inner beast, and vampire legend, as we’re told the Wendigo can only be killed by piercing its still beating heart. All that’s missing is the wolfsbane. So, the Wendigo ends up coming across as a strange mishmash of familiarly archetypal parts (a Frankenstein monster?), neither fish nor fowl.
Marking it down as a rather more derivative creation than maybe one might have liked going in. Even the wendigo curse seems to glimmer from one person to the next, like the bite of more familiar creatures of the night. With the Meadows siblings warily bringing orphaned Luke into their home, despite feeling that “it’s like we’re living with a tiger cub. You don’t know what it’s gonna grow into.” Fearing he’ll eventually start growing his own pair of nubbins, like baby bro Aiden did, there at the end.
After a manner that recalls Natalie Kingston’s work on The Wolf of Snow Hollow, cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister routinely employs the lighting effect of the police car strobes, or the shafts of light in the mine tunnel provided by a single source, for pleasing highlights and emotional effects. There are memorable shots of Keri Russell in the mauled door frame of the shed, with splintered, gnawed out wood all around the fringes.
And Plemon’s police car traveling up the mountain trail at night, swallowed up by the all-engulfing darkness of the towering pine woods on all sides. Curiously, those orbs of fire that float around in the mineshafts, like sparks from a blacksmith forge, seem to have been invented for 3D, though the movie was only filmed flat. And rarely has a film seemed more odiferous, with the foul smell of death permeating just about every frame. It dredges up unpleasant memories of driving past roadkill, on a hot summer day. Antlers’ relevant ecological themes may quickly evaporate, like the meaningful climate reforms in Biden’s eviscerated human infrastructure bill, since nothing we subsequently see logically ties back into them. Still, it’s an enjoyable scary movie, perhaps because not much thinking is required after the fact, so we can’t be left with any sour aftertaste. Like Halloween candy, Antlers is to be eaten for the sudden rush, not for the sustenance. So, if you’re a ravening wendigo, you’ll be out hunting for something far more filling, not long after the credits have rolled.