Brought back on horseback, runaway salve Eden (as played by Janelle Monáe) is beaten by her owner, a Confederate general (as played by Eric Lange). When she refuses to repeat her slave name to him, he brands her with a hot iron. A repeat runaway, the other slaves look up to Eden but when they ask her when they should escape next, she now seems beaten. Unable to fall asleep at night, Eden stares at the ceiling, trying to dream of a better life. However, what she doesn’t realise that it is only a phone call away…
… to be a target in the past is to also be a target in the future.
The sixth most popular PVOD movie to be downloaded since the Covid-19 pandemic started, Antebellum, is a movie that reaches for high concepts in pursuit of even higher ideals. Opening a yawning string and brass dominated score, directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz are intent in taking you back to some of the worst abuses of American slavery. Unlike director Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave, there is no build-up nor gentle introduction to life on the Antebellum plantation. Policed by Jasper, a sadistic Confederate soldier, convincingly played by Jack Huston, this is a reformer plantation where he delights in breaking runaway slaves. Further embued with the slow, unshowy pace of Pedro Luque’s cinematography, every moment feels portentous in the movie’s first half-hour.
After the movie’s big reveal in the second act, Anetbellum’s script begrudgingly reveals its central premise: that to be a target in the past is to also be a target in the future. Ambitiously stealing clothes from The Shining‘s creepy girl twins and Jordan Peele’s subversive debut Get Out, Antebellum is a little like Get Out as if Daniel Kaluuya’s character has already started falling and he must claw his way back to sanity by the end of the movie.
Scattering plenty of clues across its subsequent scenes, I have to say that I found most of them unnecessary. Like breadcrumbs coated with a highlighter pen, it reminded me of Robert De Niro’s role in Alan Parker’s Angelheart. There, like here, I appreciate why the clues are laid on a bit thick, but I’d argue that it’s to the detriment of the movie on both occasions. For whilst Antebellum is a horror movie of sorts, at its heart it really wants to be a mystery thriller with scenes of unflinching terror.
With fascist entitlement and endemic racism clearly in its crosshairs, it commendably doesn’t miss the target in creating connections between past atrocities and their modern-day parallels. Whereas it does fall apart is the depth of its characters and its pacing. Buffed with the distracting sheen and gloss of a perfect life, Janelle Monáe’s Eden becomes more two dimensional than three. Whereas the movie’s characters’ personalities should be driving the film’s plot, sadly most find themselves confined to the back passenger seat.
That said, whilst the second act feels a little too disconnected and plantation owner’s wife Elizabeth (as played by Jena Malone) becomes hiss-ably cartoonish, Antebellum has two redeeming cards up it’s Get Out meets The Hunt sleeve. First, it is ambitious and whilst it doesn’t pull off its central concept, I’ll give it props for at least trying. The second is Janelle Monáe. In the same way that Lupita Nyong’o defines Jordan Peele’s Us, the same is true here.
In that rarest of movies which actually gathers itself the longer it goes on (think Guy Ritchie’s The Man from U.N.C.L.E. – yes, its second and third acts do belong in a much better movie) Antebellum reveals an absorbing future through the eyes of the past.
See this movie cold. Don’t read any bylines, precis’s, paragraphs or any other movie reviews (not that you would) lest it’s main surprises be spoilt before you even start. Antebellum is a movie that arguably gets a lot wrong but you will be engrossed as it does it.