It's a horror film, no doubt. The worst, most effective form of horror, in that it doesn't feature bogeymen or faceless, raging killers. The monsters in "Antebellum" are real. Disappointingly for a film tackling such important, timely issues such as racial inequality and injustice, its gimmicks undercut its efforts, leaving the viewers to pick up the messy, disconnected pieces where they fall. By the end, you realize the puzzle wasn't even worth putting together, and that the filmmakers - while well-intentioned - don't seem to know the most effective way to handle the material.
Take for example, the lengthy tracking shot that opens the film, setting the stage. Why is that in there? There's no real reason to get "cute" with the cinematography and with the editing when you should be focusing all eyes on the film's messages. There is a disjointed, disconcerting vibe that "Antebellum" emotes, and for all the wrong reasons.
Janelle Monae plays Eden, a slave living on a rather strict plantation, even as plantations go. For nearly the first half of the film, we're not quite sure where "Antebellum" is taking us...it mainly just shows life on a plantation, done in a rather ineffective way when compared to other, better films like "12 Years a Slave." She belongs to the villainous General (Eric Lange), terrorized daily by a treacherous Captain (Jack Huston). A new slave (Kiersey Clemons) joins the ranks.
Is Eden going to plot an escape? Seek revenge? At about the half-way point, the movie abruptly takes a hard-turn (spoiler alert, although this is nothing that you can't already derive from the film's trailer), when Eden wakes up in modern times...in bed, with a loving husband and young daughter. She's actually not Eden at all, but Veronica, a strong woman and TV personality fighting for equal rights on the nightly news and starting a movement by way of her actions.
How does Veronica connect to Eden? That, I'll leave up to you to discover when watching it. Let's just say that ultimately, the so-called "twist" is a pretty hefty let-down.
There seemed to be many ways in which "Antebellum" might have been made to be better. There is definitely something immediate and important about the messages it is trying to convey, and for that it should be commended. But the film that was actually delivered isn't nearly as effective as it should be, and seems to be centered more on the tricks up its sleeves than on the substance that it so desperately should have been focusing on.
I don't personally buy that "Antebellum" is a disaster...it's not. It's just a mess. The film opens with a quote by William Faulkner saying: "The past is never dead. It's not even the past." That's a terrifically insightful way to put it and a strong phrase to build a film around.
"Antebellum" does contain a great idea in there, somewhere, about connecting dots between the past and the present. There just have been other, much better, films that have done so more effectively.
Genre: Horror, Thriller.
Run Time: 1 hour 45 minutes.
Starring: Janelle Monae, Jena Malone, Eric Lange, Jack Huston, Kiersey Clemons.
Written and Directed by Gerard Bush & Christopher Renz (feature-film debuts).
"Antebellum" is available on streaming as of Friday, September 18th, 2020.
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