CAST: Janelle Monáe, Eric Lange, Jena Malone, Jack Huston, Kiersey Clemons, Gabourey Sidibe, Tongayi Chirisa, Robert Aramayo, Lily Cowles, Marque Richardson, London Boyce
RUNNING TIME: 106 mins
BASICALLY…: A woman (Monáe) suddenly finds herself on a Southern plantation, where she is harshly treated as a slave…
NOW FOR THE REVIEW…
Its cinema release cancelled due to the pandemic, in favour of an exclusive premiere on Sky Cinema, Antebellum finally arrives in the UK the same week as Godzilla vs. Kong, a movie in which a giant ape battles an equally-large lizard monster with atomic breath… and is still somehow the more realistic movie.
Despite a number of intriguing trailers, which first caught people’s attention with what appeared to be a time-bending plot that also involved slavery to some degree (something that most certainly is not what the movie actually is), Antebellum is a confounding misfire that desperately wants to have been written and directed by Jordan Peele, a much smarter filmmaker than actual writers and directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz, but doesn’t realise that it’s a grimy exploitation movie by way of Eli Roth’s Hostel, except with zero self-awareness.
When the movie opens up, we’re apparently on a 19th century Southern plantation, filled with Confederate soldiers and black slaves being horrifically mistreated by their white overseers. One of the slaves is Eden (Janelle Monáe), who witnesses first-hand the cruelty of numerous people, which includes a number of scenes where she and her fellow slaves are beaten, raped, branded and shot in the head, amongst other horrible things. It’s all extremely unpleasant, as slave torture should be to anyone with a pulse, but it’s roughly after half an hour of nothing but nastiness when we suddenly cut to the present day, where we learn that Eden – whose real name is Veronica – is a renowned spokesperson and author who is going around promoting her new book, which apparently deals with modern race relations. Naturally, the two seemingly separate timelines cross over with each other, and what we’re left with is something that leaves you asking way too many questions about what’s happening, why it’s happening, and how it has been allowed to happen.
It’s a movie that thinks it’s being very, very clever with how it’s equating today’s forms of institutional racism with the much more open-veiled racism of the past, but in reality it’s a very, very stupid movie that ultimately says nothing about anything, only offering endless displays of nasty, unpleasant imagery designed to make you feel uncomfortable, and that’s it. There is no sense of character here because every single person – from the all-too passive protagonist to the wildly cartoonish Southern villains, among them Jena Malone and Jack Huston delivering thick accents as though they’ve come straight from the set of Gone with the Wind – is a cardboard cut-out, with motivations and desires as flimsy as the cotton that Monáe and others are forced to pick, and zero personalities other than the most outlandish of stereotypes and soap-box mouthpieces. The plot, when everything eventually starts to click together, also fails to make any sense, because there is so much about the truth behind this apparent plantation that does not add up, from how they were able to set this whole thing up without anyone noticing, to why they thought it would be a good idea to drag someone who very clearly has a prolific persona into something this secretive. It even fails as the kind of horror film it’s advertising, as it will randomly throw in hints of a supernatural connection for no reason (a rather ghostly encounter in an elevator amounts to absolutely nothing), and throw in a bunch of apparent jump-scares to hide the fact that there is no real horror to be found, other than all of the grisly slave torture.
There is definitely potential in its main ideas, which perhaps could be most effectively utilised in the form of a pitch-black satire like how Jordan Peele’s movies have managed to successfully do, but filmmakers Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz – making their feature debuts following a career in making music videos for the likes of Jay-Z and Khalid – waste all of it on a humourless, dreary thriller that takes itself far too seriously, and doesn’t even have the courtesy of being smart or subtle about anything of its messages. It is filled with heavy-handed imagery, especially during its cathartic climax which is where it truly reveals itself as a pretentious exploitation movie – as if Hostel was directed by Lars Von Trier – and while it contains some rather gorgeous cinematography (and the musical score isn’t bad either), neither visuals nor sound form a reasonable substitute for a plot and characters that reel you in and make you want to cheer or jeer. Instead, you don’t feel anything for the main character and the other slaves around her – which is alarming to say in a film about slavery – because they have almost no defining traits and are about as cartoonishly written as their much campier Southern masters, while you’re constantly frustrated by how little sense this world makes and want to see it put to better use in a much smarter, less exploitative movie than this.
If nothing else, Antebellum is proof that it’s extremely difficult to pull off such vivid and very timely social commentary in a movie that does not have the brainpower to pull it off. Filmmakers like Jordan Peele and John Carpenter are very good at building upon barmy premises that are rooted in modern social problems, because they have the intelligence to back them up with intriguing plots, well-rounded characters, and a firm focus on what they have to say, rather than just throwing in a bunch of shock torture scenes and substituting that as something that comments on society somehow. Here, while you have to give the filmmakers credit for the fact that they at least had some ambition going into this, you have a much emptier and less genuine product that’s clearly riding off the success of something like Get Out or Us, but has almost no discernible voice of its own that neither makes sense nor feels like it’s worth anyone’s time.
Again, it’s sad when Godzilla vs. Kong is the far more realistic movie I’ve seen so far this week.
SO, TO SUM UP…
Antebellum is an empty and portentous attempt to be social commentary in the same way that Jordan Peele’s films have managed to be, but doesn’t realise it’s much more exploitative fare with extremely nasty and unpleasant violence that substitutes for a plot and characters that have little intelligence or empathy put into them.