If it chooses you, nothing can save you.
The first 40 minutes or so of Antebellum is straight-up torture porn.
That’s not a term I throw around lightly. Indeed, it’s not a term I use much, as its chief function is to delegitimize the survival horror as a subgenre (Grant Watson has written extensively about this over at FictionMachine, and you should go take a look). Nonetheless, here it feels appropriate. Antebellum drops us into a Southern plantation at the height of chattel slavery and takes an almost fetishistic approach to depicting the degradation and violence visited upon the Black slaves by their white Confederate guards and overseers. It’s absolutely relentless, the highlight — or nadir, really — being a scene where slave Eden (Janelle Monáe) is branded for her rebelliousness.
It’s a tough watch. But little anachronisms in the period detail indicate that all is not what it seems on the surface. Then, after beating us over the head with atrocity after atrocity, the film drops us into the modern world, where we meet author and academic Veronica Henley (Janelle Monáe again), an African American intellectual and talk show veteran whose work focuses on the contemporary wounds left behind by historical racism. After such a wild and troubling opening act, Antelbellum slows down about three gears as we get to know this seemingly new character, who leaves her upper-class home and picture-perfect husband and daughter for a speaking engagement in another city. Afterward, she heads out for a night on the town with her two besties Dawn and Sarah (Gabourey Sidibe and Lily Cowles), and we, as an audience, are wondering how we got here from where we started, or perhaps how we’ll get back to where we started from here. Are Veronica and Eden the same person? Echoes of each other? An ancestor and a descendent? Have the screenwriters read Octavia Butler’s 1979 novel Kindred?
Well, if they have, it didn’t leave much of an impression, and we have to head into spoilerville to talk about Antebellum properly. Eden is Veronica, kidnaped by Jena Malone’s venomous Southern Belle and imprisoned in a kind of slave plantation holiday camp where awful white people can live out their Lost Cause fantasies by dressing up in Confederate uniforms or hoop skirts and utterly — and sometimes terminally — abuse Black people. As a high-profile African American intellectual, Veronica was apparently a controversial target among the shadowy group behind all this horror, but the opportunity to degrade such an ‘uppity’ Black woman was too much to resist. It’s a touch of Westworld (2016 – ) with a bit of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village (2004), plus a heaping helping of women-in-chains-style exploitation violence, but with added racism.
Race as a theme in horror is an interesting and thorny one, but as Jordan Peele has proved with Get Out (2017) and Us (2019), it can yield provocative and transgressive results when handled carefully and no small amount of hard-earned insight. First-time feature filmmakers Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz don’t as yet possess the narrative dexterity for the job. The problem here is not the subject matter itself (one should never be shocked by horror movies being shocking if you follow my drift) but the way it’s deployed.
Structurally, Antebellum isn’t fit for habitation. We’re bludgeoned into numb submission for the first act, then bored by our time with modern-day Veronica, in whose life we spend way too long in before the plot once again kicks into gear, and then once Veronica-as-Eden figuratively and literally throws off the chains and takes her revenge on her tormentors, nothing she can do really makes up for the horrors she and we have endured. There’s an art to a revenge film, and making sure the inevitable retribution satisfies the audience and vindicates the protagonist requires more careful calibration than you might expect. Here the writing is not only too clumsy for the themes the filmmakers want to address, on a basic narrative level, it’s pretty coarse. In the ‘modern-day’ second act, we learn that Veronica does yoga and has an equestrian background, and anyone who’s cracked open even a screenwriting book will be able to tell you these seemingly trivial details will pay off in the back half of the film — call it Chekhov’s Eclectic Skill Set. Done well, this can be deeply satisfying for the audience. Here, it feels too obvious; Veronica is such a thinly drawn character that what traits she is assigned stand out too clearly.
There are moments that sing, however. Cinematographer Pedro Luque, Don’t Breathe (2016), knows how to put together a striking tableau, and there are places in the film where his nimble but carefully considered camerawork elevates the whole mess. There’s a good cast here and even when they’re given little to work with, performers like Jack Huston, Kill Your Darlings (2013), here one of the faux-Confederate torturers, and Kiersey Clemons, Dope (2015), one of Eve’s fellow kidnapping victims, remain eminently watchable.
But it’s all to little effect. Antebellum isn’t really about racism and slavery, it just uses them as set dressing for a pretty rote and unimaginative rape-revenge tale. I’ve got not just a fair tolerance for trashy exploitation cinema but a genuine appreciation of the form, and even to me, this whole thing felt crass and unearned. If your curiosity has been piqued, give it a spin when it hits streaming, but I wouldn’t expend any extra time or effort on this one.
1 / 5 – Don’t Waste Your Time
Reviewed by Travis Johnson