Jacob Richardson | 2/10/2020
A compelling story with a good twist, that needed an extra script-pass and surer directorial hands to really pop.
Antebellum seems to cover two time periods. The first, in the Civil War era, with Eden (Janelle Monae) struggling on a Southern cotton farm as a slave. The second, in the modern era, with successful author Veronica (also Janelle Monae) travelling to Louisiana to present about her new novel. In the modern day, Veronica is a powerful black woman who finds her trip to Louisiana a little bit unnerving - the treatment from staff, the weird calls from Elizabeth (Jena Malone), and the strange little girl in the elevator with her. As an audience, we see parallels with the treatment of Eden in the Civil War era, who is abused by Senator Denton (Eric Lange), homestead wife Elizabeth (again Jena Malone) and Captain Jasper (Jack Huston). The question of Antebellum comes down to how these two timelines intersect.
Directed by Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz, Antebellum is billed as somewhat of a horror - a la Get Out. Certainly it has overtones of similar themes, and a similarly major twist midway through. The issue with Antebellum however is that it needed just that extra 10% to really make this a great film.
Let’s talk about what works first. The movie is beautifully shot - whether it is the opening long take, the use of fire, the scene with two black SUV’s pulling away from one another, or the final climactic horse ride through Civil War artillery fire, the movie looks incredible. The performances are also pretty great. Monae is compelling and convincing in both of her roles - as the strong, silent and eerily watchful Eden, and the confident and self-assured Veronica. Malone is weird and instantly hateable as our villain, and is Huston. In fact, the only low point on the performance spectrum is Gabourey Sidibe, and even then it isn’t necessarily bad - one just wishes that for the character of Veronica’s cool and fast-talking friend, Sidibe had have been a little more over the top.
The issues come down to some of the plotting. Too often Antebellum falls back on tropes and cliches, or doesn’t do enough to distinguish itself and make it feel fresh and new. Plenty of these issues stem from the older time period, but also in the modern era with Veronica’s presentation (which feels laughable from an audience reaction perspective). The whole film feels like it wants to be pushing for something new and innovative, but just doesn’t have the creative vision or cohesive picture there.
With all that being said, when the twist comes in Antebellum it is well done, and incredibly engaging - making this film worth seeking out despite a somewhat ‘been there done that’ feel.
Antebellum wants to be Get Out, but feels somewhat stale and cliche. Thank god, then, that the twist and Janelle Monae are so bloody good.