The marketing wisely touts the film as having a producer in common with Get Out and Us, two high-concept, race-centric horror films whose critical plaudits Antebellum would understandably seek to replicate.
While Jordan Peele used the initial hooks of his movies to investigate deeper cultural themes and implement various sub-genres, Bush and Renz don’t seem to have much on their minds past the film’s grabby conceit.
We meet Eden (Janelle Monáe) as she is carried horseback into a Confederate-run Louisiana plantation along with a new batch of slaves. She is treated cruelly by her master (Eric Lange) and, despite being forbidden to communicate with others on the plantation, Eden creates a friendship of sorts with fellow slave Julia (Kiersey Clemons).
In a parallel storyline set in modern day, we meet Veronica Henley (also Monáe), a PhD and successful author of a book called Shedding the Coping Persona about the struggles that women of color face in modern society. She pals around with her brash but supportive friend Dawn (Gabourey Sidibe) until an unexpected incident separates them. The connection between Eden and Veronica is one that is best left for viewers (ones who haven’t already seen the movie’s trailer, that is) to discover for themselves.
Antebellum opens with an ostentatious but impressive faux one-take shot establishing the grounds of the picturesque plantation as a young girl skips through a sun-drenched field with fresh flowers in hand. Over the course of a few minutes, the imagery gets more disturbing and violent until we see a runaway slave’s brutal death right before the film’s title card fills the screen.
Responsibly depicting the atrocities of slavery on screen has always been a tricky proposition, since filmmakers have to balance the unflinching honesty of the violence without crossing into exploitation.
Unfortunately, Bush and Renz cross that line early and often, slowing down the action and pumping up the overbearing musical score in a way that made me feel uncomfortable for all the wrong reasons.
Despite the crass and tasteless nature of the first act, I started to come around a bit during the film’s next section that takes place in present times. Monáe’s portrayal of Veronica is, understandably, much more open and relatable in comparison to the perpetually stifled Eden.
Watching an intelligent and dynamic woman like Veronica navigate the nuances of modern racism was much more interesting than watching Eden scream in agony as one evil act after another was visited upon her. Sidibe is also a welcome presence in this middle section, striking up a believable chemistry with Monáe and giving the movie a much needed boost of energy and self-confidence.
But inevitably, the chasm between Eden and Veronica must be resolved and their correlation leads to a Shyamalan-esque final act twist that was foolishly spoiled in the film’s teaser trailer. It’s the kind of misdirection that makes certain plot holes larger in hindsight and leaves the audience with questions that quickly unravel the flimsy storyline.
Despite some strong performances, Antebellum is an empty provocation of a thriller whose message could have resonated better with a stronger script and smarter direction.
New movies this weekend
Streaming on Netflix is Enola Holmes, a mystery movie starring Millie Bobby Brown and Henry Cavill about the younger sister of the famous Sherlock Holmes who embarks on a quest to find her missing mother.
Opening in theaters is Kajillionaire, a crime dramedy starring Evan Rachel Wood and Richard Jenkins about a woman whose life is turned upside down after her criminal parents invite an outsider to join them on a major heist they’re planning.
Premiering on HBO is Agents of Chaos, a two-part documentary from Going Clear director Alex Gibney that details Russia’s interference with the United States’ 2016 presidential election.