Review: Janelle Monáe can’t save ‘Antebellum’ from its hollow, high-concept horrors
Once Jordan Peele‘s searing Oscar winner “Get Out” kicked open the doors to cinema’s Sunken Place in 2017, many hoped that a wave of similarly minded thrillers would follow, using genre storytelling to confront the racism simmering beneath the American veneer. “Antebellum,” a woefully miscalculated high-concept horror tale from writer-directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz, reminds us that when new films aim to jangle those raw nerves with the same sharp-edged accuracy, they just might fail — some spectacularly so.
Such is the case of “Antebellum,” despite its convincingly sadistic villains, M. Night Shyamalan-esque twist and ominous violin-filled score; despite being credited to two of the producers of “Get Out” and Peele’s hit follow-up, “Us"; and despite a grueling performance by Grammy-nominated recording superstar Janelle Monáe, who squeezes blood, sweat and tears onto the screen in her first leading role.
Monáe certainly deserved to anchor a far better film than this. With a tinge of speculative sci-fi horror, Bush and Renz initially set up something with grander potential. Playing an enslaved Black woman named Eden, trapped in bondage on a 19th century Southern cotton plantation — and also PhD sociologist and successful author Veronica Henley, who lives a blessed present-day life with her young daughter and loving husband — the “Dirty Computer” artist turns in a dual performance as the film teases its structural mystery: How are these two women connected?
From its first moments, “Antebellum” roots itself in a sickly familiar dread. The film opens on a quote from William Faulkner — “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” — before a showy single-take shot by cinematographer Pedro Luque brings an ugly slice of America’s past to life. His omniscient camera floats, as if carried on an invisible wind, through a picturesque plantation in full bustle — gliding by grazing farm animals, a white mother and child in period dresses, Confederate soldiers marching in formation, slave women in crisp aprons whose faces are half-frozen in fear — before finally landing on a defeated and distraught Eden, who’s been slung over a horse and returned after a failed escape attempt.
From there the first act’s unrelenting brutalities unfold, and the film racks up a chilling parade of verbal, physical and psychological abuses inflicted on Eden and her compatriots, including the heartbroken Eli (an affecting Tongayi Chirisa), who urges her to plan another escape, and new arrival Julia (Kiersey Clemons), who bristles against Eden’s reluctance to rise up against their captors.
The monsters of “Antebellum,” white villains who get off on the silence and subservience of their Black prisoners, drip with a honeyed evil, from mercurial overseer Captain Jasper (a drawling Jack Huston) to the controlling plantation owner, known as “Him” (Eric Lange), who rapes Eden nightly in her own bed. Jena Malone walks an expert line between razored, genteel condescension and hateful resentment as a poisonous Southern belle named Elizabeth, arguably the film’s most fearsome character.
Jordan Peele knew “Get Out” had a shot. The reviews were glowing. The tracking was strong.
So heavy are the first 40 minutes of trauma and suffering, it’s almost a welcome relief when a jarring cut introduces us to Monáe’s other persona, Veronica, and her life a world away from Eden’s horrific existence. She’s a picture of modern superwomanhood who seems to have it all: a great house, a flourishing career, an adorable daughter (London Boyce), a loving husband (Marque Richardson) and a hit book about empowering the historically marginalized. That work has landed her choice gigs on cable news shows, where her viral takedowns of old white men have made her a national sensation.
When Veronica takes a quick work trip to New Orleans to speak at a summit on inclusion, Monáe shines with confidence and charisma. Chemistry crackles when she meets up with her friends Dawn (a scene-stealing Gabourey Sidibe) and Sarah (Lily Cowles) for a night on the town, and the filmmakers add layers to their exploration of the link between the bigotry of the past and that which still persists in the present. We watch as Veronica deftly navigates microaggressions from various white strangers, even as increasingly sinister inklings of dread creep into view.
As “Antebellum” approaches its third act, fate intervenes and the timelines collide. (Much of the film’s plot is best left unspoiled.) How Veronica and Eden are linked should be the film’s most satisfying turn, but the first-time feature directors tip their hands far too early and often, clumsily telegraphing clues and leaning on a twist that turns out to be more cheap than clever. “Antebellum” ultimately trips over its gimmicky plotting en route to a conclusion that rings false.
Initially slated to open in theaters this spring, the film “Antebellum” arrives on VOD following a summer of widespread protests in an urgent period of racial reckoning in America in America. The title, referring to the era preceding the Civil War, also seems now to hearken to our volatile present and uncertain future, with an election now only months weeks away and current attempts, including from President Trump, to minimize educational efforts to explore the historical impact of slavery, such as the New York Times’ 1619 Project. But considering the subject matter and the filmmakers’ own socially conscious aims, it too often feels like Black lives should matter more in “Antebellum.”
By spending more time lingering in slow-motion on Monáe’s face during a visually striking horseback chase than is spent exploring the traumas she endures onscreen, the film wants it both ways — to try to provoke serious conversations around America’s legacy of white supremacy, and also thrill audiences with lurid turns toward sensational revenge fantasy. Overly enamored of their own tepid twist and reliant on on-the-nose platitudes, Bush and Renz, advertising veterans and self-described “activist filmmakers,” mine America’s original sin of slavery and botch the landing. The results are neither cathartic nor a convincing call to action; such horrors without humanity yield hollow frights.
Rating: R, for disturbing violent content, language and sexual references
Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes
Playing: Available Sept. 18 on PVOD and digital platforms
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