Antebellum, the directorial debut from filmmaking duo Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz, opens with a quote from William Faulkner; “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” A fitting quote for a film also stuck in the past as its audience is bound to always be one step ahead. This failed attempt at social horror comes off as ham-fisted and desperate when it screams for resonance.
This review won’t go far into plot details as Antebellum hedges its bets on a third act reveal so blatantly telegraphed, most any viewer will be able to pick up on it after 20 minutes or so. Normally, that wouldn’t necessarily be a kiss of death, but Antebellum has one trick up its sleeve and when you’ve already figured out the trick, you’ll spend most of the runtime bored to tears watching the film tirelessly spin its wheels.
Janelle Monae stars as a women who finds herself kidnapped and brought to a slave plantation in Civil War-era Louisiana, but wouldn’t you know it, things aren’t as they seem. Monae’s effortless charisma makes Antebellum a slightly more digestible experience, but she’s paired with a limp screenplay containing laughable dialogue that serves her game performance no favors.
Filmmakers Bush & Renz, known for their music video work, have a clear knack for visual flair. The impressive opening tracking shot suggests a more sophisticated feature that is almost immediately undone by overtly indulgent slow motion close-ups of black actors maimed and killed with no artistry behind it. Save for one rather satisfying moment of revenge, the violence here serves as a means for cheap shock value that’s more exploitative than necessary. The filmmakers spend most of the 106 minute runtime blending empty provocation with surface-level social allegory. We live in a post Get Out-era, where audiences are smart enough to see the messaging behind the material. Bush & Renz seem to not trust their audience, spending endless amounts of screen-time spelling out every obvious attempt at social commentary.
Subtlety is nowhere to be found, doing a true disservice to strong actors such as Jena Malone and Jack Huston, who play the most perfunctory mustache-twirling (literally, in Huston’s case) villains seen in quite some time. The brief elements of horror that don’t simply come from depictions of suffering are undercooked at best, with generic jump scares smothering any true opportunity for chills. The inevitably heightened third act fails to create a sense of urgency as the haphazardly constructed narrative prevents any emotional connection from truly surfacing.
Antebellum is misguided down to its very (half-baked) core. As a film so staunchly trying to make the connection between the past and present, Antebellum finds itself, like the main character, lost in the past with very little hope of a future. There is a nugget of a good idea found here and this is clearly a film made with passion, but its approach to the material is all wrong. As promising as their visual stylings suggest, directors Bush & Renz wildly miss the mark, that any good intentions fade into vast obscurity.