Antebellum: Ambitious thriller lacks nuance, insight or structure

I was strongly looking forward to Antebellum. After a brilliantly constructed teaser trailer dropped in the latter months of last year, my intuition informed me that the movie-going world had a treat in store, a highly polished and original film that tackled nefarious social pathologies in the horror/thriller tradition, and that it might have even given Get Out a run for its money. The minute-long teaser suggested a high concept with some frightening sprinkles of verisimilitude and an intelligent screenplay that would have cinephiles yacking to kingdom come forevermore.

With a heavy heart, it must be stated that it never came to pass. There are fruitful ideas here among other competent cinematic ingredients but, unfortunately, Gerard Bush & Christopher Renz’s new film strings it all together in a manner that is nothing short of unconvincing and slapdash.

The film opens on a 19th-century plantation during the American Civil War. Eden (Janelle Monae) is one of many slaves subjected to sickening treatment by the Confederate soldiers who oversee the compound, enduring regular emotional abuse, merciless beatings, branding and being forced to sleep with a general known only as ‘Him’ (Eric Lange). The sadistic army personnel relish in brutalising the captives for as little as speaking without permission, and the most egregious insult is added to injury in the form of Elizabeth (Jena Malone), the psychopathic plantation owner who is so repulsively condescending that her belittlement skills are a kind of abstract piece de resistance.

Formulating an escape plan with fellow slaves Julia (Kiersey Clemons) and Eli (Tongayi Chirisa), Eden painstakingly engages in practice runs so that they may all eventually leave under cover of night. Inexplicably, Eden then awakes in 2020 in a plush apartment bed. Her name is now Veronica Henley, and she is a prolific sociologist who appears on Fox-style news programmes and writes treatises on intersectionality and the continuing struggle for people of colour, particularly women. Married with a daughter, she enjoys a substantial amount of success and frequent lavish outings with friends. All seems cushy, the barbarities of the plantation being nothing more than a nightmare.

As you can probably guess, things are not quite right at all. Ominously-messaged bouquets are delivered to her hotel suite where she is due to deliver a seminar on her work, people are increasingly icy in temperament, she encounters a spooky child in anachronistic clothing and simply cannot shake the feeling of being constantly observed. To top it off, Elizabeth is present in the contemporary world as a talent scout seeking to commission Veronica, maintaining her vexatious, patronising demeanour and sharp Louisiana twang to a T. This uncanny atmosphere begins to raise questions, namely how much of the aforementioned plantation nightmare was in a mere non-reality in Veronica’s head. Paranoia, social commentary and shocks await.

Let us start with the positives. Pedro Luque’s cinematography is excellent, the crisp visuals providing a bountiful and immersive experience in regards to both the Civil War plantation setting and Veronica/Eden’s present-day life. Nate Wonder & Roman Gianarthur’s OST is a mix of terrifying orchestral assaults and daunting modernised arrangements that effectively nibbles on the nerves, compounding the sensation of otherworldliness that constantly follows our heroine. The central performance of Monae is strong and in earnest, a believably confident and adjusted woman troubled by the nebulous presence of racially-motivated evildoers. It all teases at something ballsy, formidable and thought-provoking.

So what the hell happened to the narrative? Despite of all these remarkable facets, Antebellum is disjointed, bizarrely paced and ultimately very uninvolving indeed. Despite Monae’s great work, Veronica/Eden and all of the supporting characters are painfully underdeveloped, relationships and motivations vaguely hinted at if addressed at all. The finished product couldn’t be more diametric from the motion picture implied by the trailer, and while this is certainly no reason to judge the work in and of itself, the central conceit that we are left with is approached with the utmost thinness, copping out in any and every instance that has potential for narrative deftness and insight. The shoddy exposition leaves the viewer with a game of connect-the-dots that is always frustrating as opposed to clever or thoughtful, the tacked-on final twist bolstered by zero momentum and rendering the themes and atrocities that we witness as no bang and all whimper.

There is a great film in there somewhere, I just wish that Bush & Renz had injected more imagination and give-a-damn into their script. The problems of racial prejudice and dehumanisation have been subject to highly novel and intelligent scrutiny in the past few years by the likes of Jordan Peele, highlighting the insidious and clandestine toxicity with which racists adapt as their worldview becomes less consensus-acceptable. Despite not dealing in science fiction or supernature (yes, I felt cheated as well), Antebellum attempts the same but never stops dropping the ball. Forgettable and pointless.

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