Antebellum is a disjointed hodgepodge of ideas loosely strung together by a central conceit (a modern woman apparently transported back in time to a plantation and forced to become a slave) that feels tenuous at best, struggling desperately to match its ambitions with a tone that veers wildly and a narrative that gestures towards something greater without ever coming close to achieving it.
Promotional materials billed this film as being from the producer of Get Out, and while it clearly has a lot to say, at no point does it have the impact of Jordan Peele’s excellent example of how to blend horror and social commentary. Where Get Out offered a remarkable and gripping exploration of important themes, Antebellum doesn’t know what it wants to be for long enough to have any lasting impact.
The film opens with arguably its greatest achievement, a tracking shot that slowly moves through the environment of an American Civil War era Confederate plantation, evoking the setting and creating an atmosphere that sets the film up as completely ready to deliver on its promise. Realisation dawns on the viewer that despite idyllic appearances, this is an altogether disquieting place, and the score makes it clear too, the staccato jabs of the violin really imbuing the scene with dread. It’s incredibly well done, and worthy of a less muddled overall film. Clearly though, writer-directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz have an eye for how to build tension and the talent to carry off such well crafted scenes, it is just a shame the rest of the film didn’t shake out the same way.
From this point onwards, it feels like the film is attempting to capture that same magic, which it never quite manages. Whereas in that scene the music is perfectly judged, there are others throughout the film where the score is used like a sledgehammer, intending to bludgeon drama and intensity into scenes where the film hasn’t earned any. Where the imagery in that first scene is similarly elegantly crafted, other moments in the film feel hamfisted, the message obfuscated by very unsubtle, surface level ideas that barely register as impactful, because the narrative hasn’t done enough work to earn that power.
A large part of its downfall is the jarring tonal shifts. The first act is one of unrelenting brutality and there is a horror to be found in it, but again that impact is purely surface level. The depth is lacking because the film is so keen on getting to its central conceit and revealing its big idea that it doesn’t do any of the required work to make that idea worthwhile, or even worth caring about. Characters that need to be explored with more depth aren’t, and ideas that could be interesting are left by the wayside, making the whole thing feel somewhat exploitative. This contributes to a second act that feels totally disjointed from the first part of the movie, and which, once again, lacks the subtlety to truly ingratiate the viewer to either the characters or the narrative as it eagerly unfolds.
In amidst this mess, there is an excellent central performance from Janelle Monáe, who imbues a humanity into her character that the script sometimes doesn’t, so keen is it to use its characters as vehicles to drive forward its Big Ideas. Monáe does a lot of work to ensure that the film stays as engaging as it possibly can, but even she can’t stop the growing sense of boredom that begins to seep through the screen towards its denouement. Scenes that should be thoroughly absorbing just aren’t, and Antebellum‘s twists and turns fall rather flat as a result. Other performances are similarly strong (especially by Gabourey Sidibe and Tongayi Chirisa), but soon lack the material to do any more than become part of a tapestry of characters who lack proper depth.
There is some biting social commentary hiding in Antebellum, but it gets lost amidst the film’s many contrivances. These concepts aren’t explored well enough, or with enough ingenuity, to say anything truly meaningful that can’t be said with much less effort. Ultimately, despite some promise, it fails to truly evoke and investigate its worthwhile central message and as a result doesn’t do enough, with enough nuance, to feel any more than a disjointed mix of exploitative at times and tedious at others.