Quick Synopsis: A small-town Oregon teacher and her brother, the local sheriff, discover that a young student is harbouring a dangerous secret with frightening consequences.
I did not enjoy this film. Normally I like to build up to a natural conclusion before arriving at sentences like that. But I don’t want to lure you into a false sense of security with this review for this. It was an incredibly frustrating experience. Part of that is that it felt like it was doing too much, well attempting to anyway. Horror films are best when the core message is simple: Don’t have sex, he’ll break your necks. Give a hoot, don’t pollute or else you’ll be shoot. You know, simple stuff. This? Is it like a rural zombie movie? Is it an environmental film? The fact the film makes a point to have a radio news broadcaster point out local environmental issues would lead you to think that. Maybe it’s about First Nation myths and legends? Or is it even about family abuse? The truth is it’s about all of them, but because it’s only 99 minutes that means it’s also about none of them as nothing has time to develop itself. It stretches itself way too thin.
It feels mostly it’s trying to be a film about a Wendigo, a legendary figure in Algonquin culture. In the myths and legends it’s a spirit that possesses humans and gives them an incredible thirst for human flesh and murder. We’re told this in passing by a “local Native American”, who turns up, tells this story, and then is never really heard from again. His entire character is to pass on information, be the “magical native” teaching them. So they’re using First Nation mythology, and have a First Nation character as an exposition dump because the film feels it’s more important to focus on the white people in the film. On the plus side, they did actually case a First Nations actor to play the part, but the fact he’s just there to give on information feels a little weak.
Going to go into the lore of the Wendigo now, this really has nothing to do with the film itself and won’t change your mind about it, but I feel it’s something that is useful to know about. Now there are slight variations among the different myths. For Naskapi people, for example, it’s a giant that grows in proportion to whatever it just ate, so it can never be full, whereas in some it takes over a human and provides urges in them. But there are two main differences in the original lore, and how it’s presented in this film, one of which is more a thematic or visual choice, and one which is the entire visual aesthetics of the movie. The first one: it has a heart of ice. Now in this film the final battle ends when the main character cuts out the beasts heart, where it’s glowing orange and burns to the touch. Which is basically the opposite. For Western comparison it would be like if someone did a film about Jesus and they had him drown by walking into water. The second one is one you can’t ignore, antlers. Yup, the films title is based on an aspect of the myth that does not appear at all in the original indigenous stories. It’s weird as there other aspects of the legend that it gets spot on: the drapings of skin and bone in the final form, the original form being an almost transparent white with the bones visible under the skin. It is mainly the heart being fire not ice, and the antlers, which are the modern parts. But the film isn’t called “Long claws” is it? It’s Antlers. It’s focused on a part not in the original.
So yeah it uses First Nation stories but rewrites them for their own purposes, it’s quite weird. And it doesn’t even work to make the film good as it’s still a bad watch. But it is indicative of the lack of care and thought that’s gone into it. Scott Cooper directed this and he’s normally done crime dramas (Black Mass, Hostiles etc) so this is new ground for him. He actually did a good job though. The use of shadow and scale is great to watch and provided the main highlights of this film. His talent shows that there is a way to film someone just walking through a tunnel, and have it be visually impressive and use the difference in size of him and the impending shadows to tell us details about the character. The script is the main part that lets it down. It’s incredibly on the nose at points, but then also weirdly lacking in others. Do you ever watch a film adaptation of a book and feel lost because something important has been lost in the translation from book to screen? Like they missed out a plot point that actually explains the whole thing? That’s what this feels like. Like I napped at some points and wondered why certain people were doing certain things and not taking the obvious steps.
I should commend the performances I suppose. Keri Russell does what she needs to, never really astounds you but never makes you cringe. Jeremy T.Thomas is probably the best performer, providing a haunting energy to his performance. I feel mean picking on child actors but the kid who plays Clint is just annoying. In wrestling parlance, there are two types of hatred or “heat” a character can have with an audience. There’s standard heat, where the audience thinks “I dislike this character and hope they get their comeuppance”. That’s normal, that’s what you should have. And then there’s “go-away heat” (also known as X-Pac heat after a particularly disliked wrestler from the late 90’s). This is the worst. It’s something that can best be summed up with this:
Basically, it’s where the audience doesn’t hate you in a way that they will pay to see you be defeated, they hate you in a way that they turn off the channel. That’s how annoying this kids performance is. It’s not helped by how 2-dimensional his character is.
So, in summary, I would not recommend this film. It had to be legally shown in cinema due to contractual obligations stopping it from being allowed to be premiered on screening services. I wish I knew that before, I would have waited, or avoided it.