Summer has come and gone. The leaves on the trees are just starting to change. Halloween is almost here. So, it seems a perfect time for a horror movie review. I’ve written about my feelings on the genre before. I’m not the best horror viewer. Jittery. Very jittery. So, as Antebellum hits theaters and onDemand sites this week, would the new frightener be the next high-concept gem? Or will it fade into the discount DVD ether? Well, here’s what you need to know about Antebellum.
I’m just going to be blunt here, Antebellum’s entire plot is a spoiler. I will be going into spoilers here in more detail further down, but you’ll have adequate warning first. Janelle Monáe stars opposite Jack Huston, Kiersey Clemons, Gabourey Sidibe and Eric Lange. Gerald Bush and Christopher Renz direct the movie from their own script. The film is based on a novel, Antebellum: A Novel by R. Kayeen Thomas.
Over the last few years, Janelle Monáe transitioned into features with relative ease. She steals the show in movies like Hidden Figures and Harriet. This time out is no different. In fact, her performance carries much of Antebellum. Monáe possesses such inherent strength in her star persona, which shines through each time she appears on camera. Monáe’s performance is a real bright spot in Antebellum as she continues to emerge as a multi-talented performer to watch.
The same can be said of Gabourey Sidibe, who has been far too hard to track down in Hollywood after hitting the industry with an absolute vengeance with her screen debut in Precious. The actress slays in a role that far under-utilizes her skill, but with Monáe carries much of the second act on their backs. The combo of these women together feels powerful and strong, but above all, relatable. Both give such strong and dynamic performances, it’s a shame to see them muddling through a movie that’s difficult to save. Though, this doesn’t change the fact that Hollywood really needs to find more work worthy of Gabourey Sidibe.
Meanwhile, as directors, Bush and Renz bring a solid idea of what they want this feature to look like and do gel well with their creative team in order to craft a visually fascinating film. This is particularly true throughout the first act as they attempt to capture the essence of its pre-Civil War, southern setting. The entire movie has an almost dream like quality to the visuals, which transcends the drastic shifts in tone happening throughout Antebellum. At times it’s bright and pastoral, in other moments it’s harsh and florescent. This story is all over the place, but visually it does sell what the young directors are attempting.
Consider this your fair warning.
Antebellum, ultimately, fancies itself as high-concept horror. However, the problem is that it isn’t as smart as it thinks it is. Renz and Bush’s script meanders through the first two and a half acts. The action jumps between the Antebellum South and the modern day, leaving the presence of Monáe the only thread for audiences to track. The narrative is very much told through her perspective, focusing exclusively on the bubble in which she lives her life. Her performance, and her ability to define the perspective of the story is such a great choice. However, in this, the movie’s failures are all the more disappointing. There are some interesting beats throughout, but nothing quite comes to fruition. Ultimately, what the filmmakers hope will be disorienting and frightening ends up feeling disjointed and disorganized.
The script briefly finds its feet at the tail end of the second act as the not-so-subtle twist makes itself known. This isn’t really the Antebellum South. The period action is actually taking place at a Westworld like, Civil War reenactment park in the south. This time, the park isn’t staffed by robots, but by kidnapped black individuals, trafficked into a new kind of slavery.
This is not an original plot line and, truthfully, this has been done better before. As a movie viewer, yours truly is not the best at predicting twists. In fact, I’m usually the one who’s surprised. However, Antebellum tries so hard to be unconventional that it ends up being predictable.
Meanwhile, it feels poorly timed that Antebellum chooses to craft much of its horror in the depictions of slavery. Renz and Bush’s script is so reliant on setting up the twist that there is little in the narrative that could be called character development. Viewers don’t discover what is happening until more than an hour of screen time has passed.
This movie is marketed to stand alongside films like US and Get Out. In fact, the trailer loudly proclaims that this comes from the same producers. However, these earlier works told interesting, complex and compelling stories examining– and criticizing– treatments of race in contemporary culture. Antebellum on the other hand tells a simplistic and poorly constructed story, passing off the pain and trauma of slavery as filmic fodder. The sequences are unpleasant and at times brutal (as any depictions of slavery must be) but, ultimately, much of it– and the characters who are affected– end up feeling like mere plot devices intended to sell the horror narrative.
Antebellum is hindered so much by the need to protect the narrative twist. It could have been a hard-hitting and poignant take on modern culture, had the filmmakers stepped back from the genre lens through which the story is currently framed. Once the narrative takes shape in the final act, the story then makes a manic, bloody rush to the end credits. By the time the audience really knows what’s going on, the movie is over. There’s just not enough time and not enough care taken in developing the script to tell the interesting story beneath the surface.
All in all, Antebellum weaves some interesting threads early on, but in the grand scheme of things, stumbles in its execution. It’s a shame to see such luminous and powerful performances, particularly from Janelle Monáe and Gabourey Sidibe, utterly wasted in a movie that could have been so much more interesting. I leave you with my final verdict: save this one for streaming, or the discount DVD bin.
Antebellum opens in theaters and onDemand Friday September 18th.