“Antlers,” a moody muddle by Scott Cooper (“Hostiles”), attempts to do for the wendigo, a man-eating, steroidal, elk-like creature from Algonquin folklore, what “Jaws” did for the great white shark: pare a beast to its protuberances and set it loose on an economically-anxious hamlet where basic human well-being is a luxury.
The setting is a small Oregon coal mining town that looks funereal even before the wendigo stacks up spines like discarded toothpicks. The mine has shuttered, but promises to reopen. In the interim, its abandoned shaft is an irresistible temptation for two destructive forces fated to collide: Frank Weaver (Scott Haze), a local meth maker who cooks in the darkness, and the wendigo, Mother Earth’s vengeful protector. (The film’s go-green ideology appears only in the opening crawl before becoming as forgotten as a T-shirt from Earth Day 1994.)
A cannibal who symbolizes mankind’s appetite for greed and plunder couldn’t be more relevant. In execution, however, “Antlers” isn’t much interested in expanding on its folkloric myth. The wendigo stalks the movie like just another rattle-throat corpse-grinder that yowls and stomps and does its darnedest to trample a path for a sequel. The script, co-written by Cooper, C. Henry Chaisson and Nick Antosca (“Channel Zero”), dwells instead on the miseries of Frank’s oldest son, Lucas (a promising Jeremy T. Thomas), a 12-year-old grappling with the complete destruction of his already fragile home life. Lucas’s English teacher, Julia (Keri Russell), notices that the starved child is scribbling disturbed drawings that demand more attention than the stretched-thin principal (Amy Madigan) is able to give.
Julia has her own history of abuse, conveyed through cryptic flashbacks and Russell’s flatlined frown. The film’s smartest insights come from observing how maltreated children bear their secrets. At the same time, Julia’s brother (Jesse Plemons), the local sheriff, is saddled with speculating that the disemboweled victims were done in by “a bear or cougar or something,” inanities made worse by Cooper’s apparent affection for ponderous dialogue delivery that makes every character speak as though they’re hand-whittling each word.
The film’s self-seriousness is as oppressive as its setting’s monotonous fog. The cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister shoots handsomely, making Boschian ghouls of men in bug-eyed gas masks, yet it gets frustrating that neither he nor Cooper allow anyone to turn on more than one lamp. Despite Julia’s classroom lectures about the purpose of fiction — on Goldilocks: “Is there a moral or lesson in that story?” — “Antlers” itself is merely a jumbled presentation of awful things, the bones of a good idea with none of the meat.
Rated R for blood and guts and emotional bludgeoning. Running time: 1 hour 39 minutes. In theaters.