A good horror film will prey upon basic human fears and insecurities to give us a jolt. It will shock us to life by showing us what we’re afraid of. An excellent horror film will take the next step and use that same approach to shine a light on the roots of fear and extrapolate terrifying scenarios from the tensest aspects of culture and society. Some of the best examples in recent memory are Jordan Peele’s Get Out and Us, which exist not only as effective horror films but as sharp commentaries on racism, assimilation, and the shadow self. The newest contender to this category is Antebellum, a horror film that aspires to something that is fundamentally out of its reach.
A brief note: while I try to keep my reviews as spoiler-free as possible, it is close to impossible to discuss exactly why this film doesn’t work without giving away at least some mild spoilers. If you want to go into the film cold and spoiler-free, skip to the final paragraph.
Antebellum follows modern-day activist and author Veronica Henley (Janelle Monáe), who suddenly finds herself trapped in what appears to be a Civil War-era Southern plantation. Branded a slave and forced into working the fields, Veronica must discover how she ended up where she is and how to escape before it’s too late.
There’s not much plot to the film, but there doesn’t necessarily need to be. The premise itself is loaded with potential and allows a fantastic opportunity to discuss any number of themes. But most of that promise is lost by a confused narrative, a poorly-constructed setting, and flat characters that almost barely register. Writers/directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz have great intentions but shoddy execution; solid logic and approach but a final product riddled with holes.
This is the first feature for both, the pair previously having directed a number of short films and music videos. And had Antebellum been a short film, it would have been tremendously more effective. There are large stretches of filler and inert action, scenes that go nowhere and mean little, characters that appear for no reason and vanish without a trace. There’s 105 minutes of film here but only about 30 of any substance.
The film looks fantastic, if anything else. The pair’s visual instincts can’t really be faulted much. The opening scene is a long take that starts on the facade of the plantation; all beautiful belles, white columns, and gentility. It travels through the cotton fields, the poorly-constructed slave shacks, until finally landing on the outskirts of the property where a group of Confederate soldiers are brutalizing a pair of slaves trying to escape. This is the film’s thesis in andante, contrasting the white-washed, romanticized facade of the antebellum south with the harsh, visceral reality behind it. It’s made even more effective by the tense, dark, and bleak chamber orchestra score by Nate Roman and Roman Gianarthur. It sets up high expectations that the film doesn’t deliver on until the final moments of the climax.
That climax, as well, is genuinely thrilling and satisfying. It’s just a shame that the road to get there is such a slog. Bush and Renz make the baffling decision to essentially swap the first and second acts of the narrative, meaning that we spend the first portion of the film seeing Veronica already trapped in the plantation with no context for her situation. We don’t get a chance to know her ahead of time, although this may be entirely on purpose. Indeed, we shouldn’t have to know her to sympathize with her given the conditions and brutality she’s subjected to. I can’t personally argue with their decision too much from a thematic perspective, but it doesn’t work well from a storytelling angle. Just when Veronica’s plantation narrative is building up, we cut to her prologue for an extended period of time, and by the time we cut back the momentum is reset to zero. It robs the story of its kinetic energy, leaving it feeling sadly lifeless and flat.
Beyond that, the situation Veronica finds herself in turns out to be disappointingly mundane, which again is probably on purpose. The film’s trailers teased a supernatural or sci-fi twist to the scenario, but the real cause is something almost depressingly down-to-earth. This actually serves to strengthen the film’s core belief, that the racism of the plantation has always been and will always be a wholly human creation. However, Bush and Renz don’t construct the presentation of this revelation well, leading to a lot of questions that serve only to obscure and muddy up the narrative and its message.
What keeps the film going can be summed up in two words: Janelle Monáe. Monáe is a remarkably expressive actress, possessed of a captivating and intuitive grasp of emotion. She gives Veronica depths that likely don’t exist on the pages of the script, especially in the sections before she ends up on the plantation. Here, she’s possessed of a quiet but undeniable strength with a voice that’s loud without ever having to be raised. This a sharp contrast to her life on the plantation, where her strength is forced down by abuse but never extinguished. Monáe is the film’s heart and soul, wordlessly expressing volumes beyond what the film itself is capable of on its own.
Her supporting cast isn’t quite as vibrant or impressive, however. The Confederates on the plantation all blur together in a lineup of bad accents and questionable facial hair. Gabourey Sibide is completely wasted as Veronica’s best friend Dawn, who’s dialogue feels like it was meant for another actress entirely. The only one who comes close to matching Monáe for sheer watchability is Jena Malone as the sinister Elizabeth. That’s not a spoiler, because from the second Malone opens her mouth for the first time, you know exactly how nasty and spiteful this character is. Malone is clearly enjoying the chance to play a villain, wrapping Elizabeth’s motives with a honeyed, “bless your heart” Southern charm that’s a deadly weapon in its own right.
Antebellum could have been so much more than it turned out to be. The bones are strong. The heart is in the right place. But the execution is slipshod, the narrative spread too thin, and even Monáe’s impressive performance can’t elevate it much. It raises as many questions as it answers, leading to a conclusion that feels both clear and confusing at the same time. It’s disappointing enough to see a film not work on its own, but it’s even worse when you can see what could have been in the middle of that.
FBOTU Score: 4 out of 10 / C-
Antebellum can be streamed through Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Xfinity, Vudu, Google Play, Fandango Now, YouTube, and many other platforms.