Another week into the pandemic, another straight to VOD film release. This week on the docket is Lionsgate’s hopeful new horror thriller hybrid, Antebellum.
Starring Janelle Monáe, the film was first marketed as a culturally conscious psychological horror, a realm that has been popularized by recent films Get Out and Us. Antebellum showed initial intrigue for seemingly splitting its time between the present day and the era of the civil war. Institutional and overt racism run rampant throughout most of the screen time, with the lead character(s) struggling to find freedom in each timeline.
With a preview so mysterious, the film generated some deserved anticipation. An already well established musician still rising the ranks of Hollywood in Monáe and a premise sure to drive forward the ongoing cultural conversations surrounding systemic racism in America seemed a promising premise for a new thought provoking thriller.
Unfortunately, Antebellum largely stumbles through its execution and underutilizes the talents of Monáe and her contemporaries in the film.
Writers and first time directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz are unable to pull off what others in the genre, namely Jordan Peele, have accomplished so masterfully. Lacking nuance and thematic cohesion, its script is messy and largely bereft of context. This is most apparent in the first act.
In the film’s opening sequence, viewers are immediately dropped into a puzzling Louisiana plantation where the enslaved Eden (Monáe) and her peers work for the ruthless Captain Jasper (Jack Huston) and his wife Elizabeth (Jena Malone). Many individuals seek asylum in natural leader Eden and hope for an escape. In the abruptly dramatic, baffling and shamelessly brutal opening scene, a failed escape attempt intends to contextualize how much of a prison the plantation is for the enslaved individuals. It leaves many questions unanswered. Intended to veil the setting in mystery, the film instead fails to build the world of Antebellum.
The remainder of the film sways back and forth from the modern city to the plantation, never quite leaning fully into either in a committed way. Monáe does her best with a script constantly trying to provoke awe, but Antebellum‘s screenplay is too disorganized to successfully impress viewers. Too much time is spent on unnecessary interactions, and the quieter, character establishing scenes lack the subtextual, tense tone needed to grip the audience.
The most disappointing thing about Antebellum is its end of second second act twist. When the reveal occurs, viewers are all the more saddened to think of the better story that existed within this film. Instead, they were given something that relies too heavily on violence, exploitation of an unforgettably dark American history, and not enough on its talented cast.
This twist beckons the question, what is the message of this film? The cultural commentary bubbled under the surface, but never quite cut through.
Not all facets of this complicated story are executed poorly. The final set piece is beautifully filmed, with a climactic finale nearly making up for a tumultuous journey. Monáe’s commitment to the role is boundless. She loses herself in this character, in what one can only imagine is an empathy few to no people would have been able to adopt for this film.
With often beautiful cinematography, a great idea, and a strong cast, Antebellum should have been a smash hit. If only the screenplay was reworked to add more honest thrills, greater tension, and less filler dialogue, this film could have made waves in homes of an already politically polarized America.