“Antebellum” wastes its potential time and time again

Antebellum Janelle Monáe in Antebellum. (Lionsgate)

Gerard Bush & Christopher Renz’s feature debut is a misguided, crass, often silly tale that throws away its cast and premise.

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Ambiguity is a funny thing. Some movies use it as a catchall for their shortcomings. Others thrive on it, shifting in voice and perspective. Then there are things like Gerard Bush & Christopher Renz’s feature debut, which against its better judgment shuns ambiguity altogether. As a whole, Antebellum constantly hints at dumb decisions. Telegraphing its flaws would be one thing, but this would-be mindtrick doubles down on its worst impulses time and time again, resulting in one of the most misguided social comments in a while.

It starts off middling at best. With DP Pedro Luque, Bush & Renz guide viewers through a five-minute tracking shot of a slave plantation. It’s competently staged, sure, but it’s weirdly showy, giving an unsound sheen to its hoards of racially motivated violence. Odder yet, the movie gives its most discernible identities to the perpetrators. Whether it’s a blonde girl (Arabella Landrum) or the matriarchal overseer (Jena Malone), they for some reason or another have more presence than the victims. So what victim are we focusing on? That would be a woman called Eden, whom Janelle Monáe plays. Alas, Monáe gets so little to do.

Antebellum

Antebellum goes through the motions for its first 40 minutes, beating, branding, and raping the heroine in a shallow bid for historical accuracy. Eden is, just like everyone else, so lacking in any real pathos beyond a character trait. Never mind Monáe’s attempts to buoy the role; Bush & Renz’s camera focuses on the brutality as if endurance alone makes up a character. How did Eden get here? What was her life before this, and how can she escape? Several moments hint at the answers. It’s when and how it reveals them that cement the end result as so poor, a leer in which Black history is nothing more than suffering.

The exploitative bent to the violence here is one thing. It has so little context or emotional weight that it strips itself of any wider implications. When those do appear, they aren’t implications at all: They’re Bush & Renz’s script turning characters into mouthpieces. What makes it even more despondent, though, is how the expositional dialogue goes against the nonlinear structure. Antebellum jumps back and forth in time, and it often feels like it’s trying to emulate a stream of consciousness. Instead, it shoehorns mystery into a premise that has little business trying to hide anything up its sleeve at all.

What the movie thinks is mystery is actually a handful of thematic parallels. The trauma of centuries past, how this discrimination repackages itself, how people appropriate that iconography—it’s all here. They’re fundamental to the movie, and they’re the most salient parts. The issue is that they’re almost entirely separate from the narrative momentum, rendering Antebellum inert on a fundamental level. The only bits that actually work here are the peripheral touches, but those fall victim to an absolutely abysmal twist that lands flat on its face.

Telegraphing its flaws would be one thing, but this would-be mindtrick doubles down on its worst impulses time and time again, resulting in one of the most misguided social comments in a while.

The cast largely falls victim to the same issues. The direction places an emphasis on physical suffering as opposed to sociological issues, objectifying Monáe in the process. It’s for a majority of the movie that she writhes in pain or hides, and thanks to the structure, even her more empowering moments (none of which ring true) are exclusive from an internal arc. The film misuses its supporting players too: Malone, typically great elsewhere, is out of place with a performance that borders on comedic and even campy. The likes of Kiersey Clemons and Marque Richardson end up as little more than torture fodder. It’s truly crass.

By the time Antebellum reaches its end, it undoes most of the goodwill it’s stumbled upon. It tangles its plot and neutralizes its story in equal measure, but most of all, it so cloyingly reaches for some sort of catharsis that the result can’t help but pander. This heroine endures generations of trauma. Shouldn’t her struggle feel like more than a glorified chess match? Better yet, shouldn’t the twists at hand add more layers rather than strip it down to a cruel joke? Perhaps it could have skirted by if there were a grey area for interpretation or analysis. Instead, it wants to make a point so badly that it completely loses its reasoning.

Antebellum hits VOD this Friday, September 18.

Antebellum Trailer:

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