You can never be afraid to be unpopular…
Antebellum is more than a little smug, clunky and entirely gonzo but it makes a real statement about systemic racism and is hard to simply look away from.
Successful author Veronica Henley (Janelle Monáe) finds herself trapped in a horrifying reality and must uncover the mind-bending mystery before it’s too late.
It makes sense that Antebellum comes from the writer/directors of short films as it would have made for a barn burner of 30-40 min short. As a feature it’s a mess…but a terribly compelling one with some real genius in it…problem is that it’s also side by side some predictable and clunky nonsense that wouldn’t cut it in a student film not knowing exactly what kind of story it wants to be.
Let’s get the positive things out of the way first…
Antebellum looks like a million bucks from top to bottom as writer/directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz have an unquestionable sense of style as the film has a genuine visual flair to it. It’s visually self assured and confident in moments as the script conveys some real intelligent commentary about the insidious nature of systemic racism that is still far too prevalent even today. Sadly, instead of letting things play out with more nuance we get lots of exposition that assumes that we as an audience are kind of dumb.
The movie needed more faith in its actors to be able to play the more subtle and impactful moments but it does get the idea across even if it’s in a half-assed way that allows for the nuance of hammer hitting us over the head. It’s the odd marriage of really smart and really dumb getting mashed up together in an allegorical piece that feels vital but not deserving of the moment it is trying to comment on, it’s all kind of dumb with the horror moments being obvious and the more interesting social commentary moments being too subtle. Ultimately, it’s good but suffers from being not nearly as smart as it thinks it is and is really only saved by a very strong leading performance.
That being said, in her first leading role; Janelle Monáe proves that she’s more then up to the task of carrying the film with a strong leading performance as she knows how to command the frame. We buy the impending dread building on her proverbial shoulders but we just don’t get enough from the characters around her to really sell it. Jack Huston and Jena Malone are there to provide antagonists to overcome and while it works in spurts, the whole thing needed more.
Ultimately there’s a really interesting movie somewhere inside Antebellum which is what makes it at least somewhat compelling to watch, but it all needed some real refinement to have the effect that it wants to and could have had with audiences. It’s unbalanced narrative had us wishing it would commit just a little harder to one end of the spectrum or another. Be a psychological horror film, or be a piece of social commentary on the problems of systemic racism today. It all tries for too much and only kind of gets the job done.