Antebellum Review- It Isn’t Get Out, But It’s Not Terrible Either
Antebellum, starring Janelle Monáe, isn’t the best thing you will see all year, but for a starved audience it could be worse.
“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Those words by William Faulkner serve as the overly dramatic cold open of Antebellum. The film didn’t need the philosophical words since it beats us senseless with forty minutes of stylish torture porn. Don’t expect anything as witty or sly as Get Out or as fabulous as Shudder’s new queer horror film Spiral. Think more the sledgehammer approach to filmmaking, and you might enjoy Antebellum. Critics hate it, but if you strip away the preachiness, there’s a decent horror movie with a nugget of a great idea. Here’s the good, the bad, and the ugly of the latest horror film to premiere Friday everywhere PPV.
Janelle Monáe, who is gamely committed to the part no matter how ridiculous things get, is predictably good. Just as in the second season of Amazon Studio’s Homeland, there is a grounded realism to her performance. Regardless of how clunky the dialogue, she shines through. She’s a bright point in an otherwise underutilized cast. The camera loves her, and without her absolute conviction, Antebellum would tank.
Cinematographer Pedro Luque shot a gorgeous film. Along with writer/director team Gerald Bush and Christopher Renz, it is nothing short of stunning. The opening sequence is a slow-motion look at a sun-soaked, dusty Hell. There’s a lackadaisical putridness to the plantation segments. It’s as if the lushness of the fields hides a rotten core. There’s no risk of spoiling things to say there is a major reveal halfway through that the trailers broadcast. Suffice it to say the second location is equally vibrant. The cityscape feels alive and full of possibilities, good and bad. It is a gorgeous sweeping horror movie like if M. Night Shyamalan reimagined gone With The Wind hopped up on Nyquil. What sounds like a great idea in some fever dream turns into a half-baked tryhard in the light of day.
Jenna Malone(Sucker Punch), who usually impresses, was evidently asked to overact as if her life depended on it. The same is true, in fact, for almost everyone on both sides of the proverbial fence. Most characters either feel like cardboard cutouts from Racist R Us, stereotypical “uppity” women, or hillbilly bullies who were given too much sugary cereal and told they were special. At one point, one of the aforementioned bigots calls a friend a snowflake. Malone is better in the opening sequence when her icy properness speaks of plantation life that hid mountains of venom underneath flowery civility and commerce. A comment on the potential negativity of white women in America is lost in a subterfuge of saccharine accents and flowing hair.
That should have been the first of many clues that the twist wouldn’t be as shocking or successful as Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense, or even The Village for that matter. Several key characters aren’t even given a name. It’s not in an innovative intention way either. It’s more another attempt at enlightened editorializing. By hamstringing the characters with such superficial personas, their behavior lacks the punch it might otherwise have had. Additionally, if you are going to make the statement that hate hides in plain sight, maybe not hang a mustache-twirling neon sign around said, villain.
It’s a very broad brush that Bush and Renz paint with that does not do the serious themes any favors. Note to filmmakers, if you are going to comment on the inequality of strong women, particularly women of color, it’s probably not a great idea to victim shame them. Antebellum makes the unfortunate choice to veer dangerously close to calling Veronica too comfortable. As if her cushy privileged life has made her soft and vulnerable. If the intent is to discuss the societal impact of passive and overt racism, it’s lost in a shuffle of soundbites, rude concierge, and gorgeous hotel suites. Slavery is wrong, full stop. It doesn’t matter that you came from a future where slavery was over, and you are now a successful Starbuck swilling, pantsuit wearing revolutionary.
It also steers headlong into a perverse and obtuse desire to explain to us that racism is the same, and slavery was awful. The extended torture scenes, while horrific, aren’t nearly as meaningful as they were in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave, where the focus was instead on the triumph of Solomon Northrup instead of gawdy violence. There was a dignity to that film that Antebellum wants to have but doesn’t. Shouted expository while on horseback is not only not good storytelling but uncomfortably comical. Movies like this shouldn’t be funny. The supposedly triumphant ending is cheapened with one final reveal that is more wryly humorous than hard-hitting.
Bizarre plot devices are introduced and then completely forgotten. For example, ghost girls with pale skin, Civil War era clothing, and pink sneakers make a creepy appearance in the second act with zero explanation. Is she the symbol for the perpetuation of prejudice and hate? Maybe she’s an actual ghost of racism past? Is she a sick little girl who has lost her Mommy? Nothing is explained, and it feels like an overindulgent accident. It’s almost like someone had a half-baked dream of what seemed like an excellent idea and then forgot most of it before they could get pen to paper. Most of Antebellum suffers from questionable writing.
I know two-thirds of this article is negative. It’s hard to see the positive in what amounts to a serviceable horror movie that takes itself way too seriously. It’s the right time and message, but the wrong vehicle. As hard as it is, ignore the social commentary. Obviously, the writers have become enamored with their own wokeness. Look past that, and you will find a decent gotcha that isn’t as good as it wants to be or as terrible as it could be.
There has been a ton written about the type of movie Antebellum wants and fails to be. Most of the critiques are valid. Ignore the press. Antebellum isn’t the most profound horror movie even though it would like to be. But what it lacks in depth, it makes up for in campy amusement. Campy or schlocky are not words I ever thought I would use to describe Antebellum. It’s billed as the next brilliant horror film about the Black condition. It’s not that. What it is, though, is a well-shot horror movie with a satisfying ending and a fair twist.
As the Television Editor for Signal Horizon, I love watching and writing about genre tv. I grew up with old school slashers, but my real passion is television and all things weird and ambiguous. When I’m not watching and writing about my favorite movies and series, I’m introducing my family to the wonderful world of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror. My only regret, there is not enough time in the day to watch everything.