Antebellum is a 2020 thriller film from debut writer-directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz, the trailer for which implied it was a mind-bending, time-travelling horror story set during the times of slavery in America. However Antebellum never manages to live up to what it promised, turning out instead to be a rather dull and predictable affair.
Antebellum opens on an unknown plantation somewhere in Louisiana, run by confederate soldiers. Janelle Monae stars as Eden, a slave we first see being beaten and branded by the confederate leader general known only as “Him” (Eric Lange). Running the plantation alongside “Him” is sadistic Confederate officer Captain Jasper (Jack Huston) and his equally unpleasant wife Elizabeth (Jena Malone). Eden and her fellow slaves, including newcomer Julia (Kiersey Clemons), suffer numerous acts of brutality and oppression at the hands of Confederate soldiers, all the while trying to plan their escape amid the feeling that this plantation isn’t quite what it seems.
Then one night lying in bed after being raped by the general, Eden hears the ringing of a mobile phone and suddenly wakes up in an entirely different era, where she is now known as renowned sociologist Dr Veronica Henley. Veronica has a husband (Marque Richardson) and a young daughter and is currently finishing off a book tour, with some help from her best friends Dawn (Gabourey Sidibe) and Sarah (Lily Cowles). Strange things soon start to happen, and a night out with her friends doesn’t quite the way Veronica had expected.
Antebellum’s biggest flaw, and unfortunately a rather pivotal one, is the story itself. I feel like there is meant to be an important message here, but I feel like it’s lost in the stereotypes and predictability. I’m trying to avoid spoilers, but this film is very reminiscent of one by M. Night Shyamalan and has a very similar storyline. I’d actually go so far as saying that his film was at least more interesting. Antebellum seems to have shied away from showing any real intrigue or thrill or horror at all, and other than switching from Eden to Veronica partway in, nothing of any real substance happens until the last 30 minutes of the film. There was even a lack of hints or subtleties pointing to the later plot twist throughout, and this may at least have helped make it a little less dull.
It’s a shame, as this film did have potential. It looks stunning and has been very well made, from the set design to the costumes, it all looks authentic and the score is suitably tense and dramatic too. The opening scene on the plantation alongside the score made for a very intriguing opener, although sadly this was spoilt some by the use of questionable slow motion. Performance-wise Gabourey Sidibe brings some much-needed humour and fun as Veronica’s man-hungry best friend, and Janelle Monae is captivating as both Eden and Veronica. This film is lucky Monae is such a talent, as she’s the only reason this was watchable to the very end. It’s just a shame Jena Malone’s Elizabeth is far too over the top to be a believable villain.
Antebellum is obviously trying to make an important statement about slavery and racism packaged into an unusual thriller/horror, but unlike similar films like Jordan Peele’s Get Out, it doesn’t manage to pull it off and instead flounders with a dull and predictable storyline that most could figure out well before the final act. It’s also severely lacking in any real intrigue or horror, and aside from some good performances, there’s nothing memorable about this at all.
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