What’s most frustrating about Antebellum is that it’s one of those movies that has a solid idea for a horror film, but goes on to execute it so poorly that the idea is just wasted and the final product is just bad. It’s a pet peeve of mine when reviews or advertisements for a film say “There’s a twist you’ll never see coming!” because that just gets my mind working before the movie even begins to try and figure out what the twist is and in almost all instances it takes away from the impact of the twist when it does happen. What makes a twist great is when you have no idea one is even coming, which is why the twists was so good to those reviewing it in the first place. So I wanted to avoid talking too much about what really frustrated me with Antebellum because of that belief – until I saw the trailer.
I don’t watch trailers until after I see a movie because they’ve become 3-minute summaries that show so much that it takes away from the joy of not knowing what to expect. The Antebellum trailer actually highlights just how much of a wrong turn the story took, and how the underlying idea really could’ve made a solid horror thriller if handled properly. But what the trailer also does is show the viewer that the lead character, Veronica (Janelle Monáe), is kidnapped and taken to this place that’s been built to look like a Confederate state in the early 1860s during the Civil War.
That’s actually fine to show because that’s all something that should’ve happened in the first 15-20 minutes of the movie, but instead Antebellum chooses to take another route to try and “trick” the audience – even though those who have watched the trailer know exactly what’s happening so the twist isn’t even a twist. Antebellum begins on the Confederate plantation with soldiers marching around, and slaves working the land. We then see one slave, a strong man, being held by a handful of soldiers while a female slave screams for them to let him go. They don’t and she runs off. The soldier in charge, Captain Jasper (Jack Huston), pursues her on horseback without much effort and then shoots her before dragging her back to camp behind his horse.
We then cut to the inside of a cabin where Veronica is being interrogated by the general at the camp. The character is credited as Him (Eric Lange), and he asks Veronica what her name is. She says she doesn’t know, and this angers the general. He slaps her around, then brands her and then asks her again what her name is. Crying and defeated she whimpers the name Eden.
We stay at the plantation for the first 40 minutes of the movie before Eden goes to sleep one night after being raped by the general and wakes up as Veronica, who’s at home in bed with her husband in present day America. We learn that she’s a successful author and sociologist who fights for equal rights for black people and then go on to spend 20 minutes with her in this time, going about her life, only for her to get kidnapped at the end of it. She’s knocked unconscious in the car that takes her and then she wakes up where we left off with “Eden” who we now know is Veronica.
The issue here is that not only did those who watched the trailer already know that her character gets kidnapped so this wasn’t a big reveal at all, but that for those like myself who had no clue because we didn’t watch the trailer prior, it simply just wasn’t worth dragging out this “shocking moment” at the sake of sacrificing character and story development. The logline for the movie also sell it with the description that Victoria “finds herself trapped in a horrifying reality and must uncover the mind-bending mystery before it’s too late.” What? There’s no mind-bending mystery! She was kidnapped. She knows this because it happened to her at the beginning. It’s only somewhat of a really weak mystery to the viewer because the filmmakers decided to slap the beginning in the middle just to try and add depth that isn’t really there. All this does is add viewer expectations right out of the gate that the film never delivers on.
The movie simply should’ve began with Veronica at home or checking into her hotel in preparation for her public speaking seminar and we’d learn what we’d need to learn about her there. Then she’s kidnapped and wakes up at the plantation, tries to escape and causes the murder that began the film and then has to begin to unravel what happened and why all these other kidnapped black victims have fallen in line to play the part of slaves to these despicable racists that are participating in this horrific role-playing nightmare.
This way we at least get to understand what’s happening through the protagonist’s eyes and learn with her about how this came to be and who else is involved. Instead we learn nothing about anyone at the camp be it Confederate or slave during that first 40 minutes and by the time we return there we’re already heading into the final act. The characters are wafer thin and that’s the biggest issue the movie has. We care a bit about the lead because we know she’s the lead, but every other slave around her at the camp might as well be wearing red shirts for how little we learn about them (zero) and how utterly disposable they are.
The second most developed character in the movie is Victoria’s friend Dawn (Gabourey Sidibe), and do you know why that’s a bad thing? Because all the time we spend with her and Victoria in present day America mean nothing to the plot. Nada. Zilch. She’s there for comedy relief and that’s it — and the comedy relief she provides isn’t funny or relieving! It’d at least be somewhat okay if she meant something to the actual plot, but she doesn’t, so it’s completely out of place. She could be erased from the movie and nothing would be lost. Not an iota of anything would be missed. So instead of actually getting to know Eli (Tongayi Chirisa), the guy on the plantation whose wife was murdered at the start of the movie, we instead get to hear how much Dawn wants to get laid. We know so little about Eli that I actually had to look up his name because I’m not even sure it’s ever mentioned; however, it’s really hammered home how prepared Dawn is to get herself some action.
The movie also talks at the viewer a lot, never taking the time to properly set the stage in ways that resonate or have some impact, but instead banking on its characters to spew out exposition and ideologies to get the plot and themes across. It’s unfortunate because Monáe does a great job with the little she’s given, as does Chirisa and the rest of the actors. And the film looks beautiful and is wonderfully shot (save for the horrifically shot climax, which goes from dead of night to what seems like the middle of the day in a matter of moments), and the strong, eerie score by Roman GianArthur and Nate Wonder is fantastic.
Again, the foundation of the story was strong for a horror tale, and that’s why the main selling point of the film is that it’s made by the producers of Get Out and Us. Those were both much stronger films (thanks to the creative genius that is Jordan Peele, who actually has nothing to do with this film at all) and because of this, as a viewer, I believed that Antebellum could actually follow in those same footsteps. That it would have strong characters, shocking and gut-wrenching moments, all while trying to show how racism is just as rampant and emboldened now as it was back then; but as you’re watching it feels like Antebellum isn’t sure of itself or what it’s trying to say and do, choosing instead to get meaninglessly creative to the point of self-harm.
With that all said, and with how weak the plot and characters end up being, at the very least we want to see the racists get their comeuppance. Usually with movies like this one you’re just itching for the moment when the lead characters rise up and get their vengeance! Let’s see those racist bastards get theirs! But again, Antebellum’s climax just falls flat because it’s over so quick. When we get back from finding out that Victoria was kidnapped there’s only 25 minutes left and everything goes from zero to sixty out of nowhere. So many illogical moments happen during this time that it almost becomes satirical, and it’s all incredibly unsatisfying when the dust clears – which is actually a perfect way to describe Antebellum as a whole.
Director(s): Gerard Bush, Christopher Renz
Writer(s): Gerard Bush, Christopher Renz
Notable Cast: Janelle Monáe, Jena Malone, Gabourey Sidibe, Eric Lange, Jack Huston, Tongayi Chirisa