When I first saw the trailer for “Antebellum” near the beginning of the year, I was confused by the film’s premise, but still intrigued to see what the movie would offer.
The trailer presented very little in terms of an actual story, but it showed off what appeared to be a horror movie where the figurative monster is the United States’ history of slavery and racism. It made the film out to be some strange story that would jump between a black woman enslaved in the 1800s to the same woman living a successful life present day. It was vague in its definition of this concept, but that mystery made “Antebellum” a film I was very interested in seeing.
Now that I’ve actually gotten the chance to see “Antebellum,” I can say the movie somehow manages to be incredibly vague and heavy-handed at the same time, which results in the film falling flat on its face and leaving the viewer utterly perplexed by the experience they just had.
“Antebellum” was released through online on-demand services like Vudu this past weekend, and, to put it lightly, the film has been garnering generally negative reviews. It is currently holding a 27% critic approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, though it does have a fairly good audience score of 65%.
What’s frustrating about “Antebellum” is that, at the film’s core, it has a really solid idea.
Without getting too into the spoilery details, the film tells two seemingly different stories: one of an enslaved woman on a Southern plantation and the other of a wealthy, successful woman who is an activist and published author. Both characters are played by Janelle Monáe, and there’s some sort of grand mystery connecting the two of them. The viewer trying to solve this mystery serves as the film’s driving force.
Where “Antebellum” fails is in the execution of this idea.
To be honest, “Antebellum” feels like a bad M. Night Shyamalan film with a predictable, yet overly dramatic plot twist that doesn’t really make sense. Making matters worse is that while trying to provide some intense social and political analysis, the film doesn’t go much deeper than “racism is bad.”
Before really delving into the film’s flaws, I want to point out some good things about “Antebellum.”
The film does a good job of creating an unsettling atmosphere. From the moment the film begins, the mood of “Antebellum” creeps under the audience’s skin and causes an intense feeling of unease. It’s the kind of tone one would expect from a great socially-aware horror film such as “Get Out,” and it really sucks the audience members in and gets them excited to see where the story will go.
Additionally, Janelle Monáe’s lead performance, while far from her best work, was pretty solid. Since she’s the central character in the two main plotlines, Monáe had to work double-time to carry this film on her back. While the execution of the film ultimately ends up leaving plenty to be desired, none of that was at the fault of Monáe. She did the best she could with what she was given.
Aside from those things, there weren’t many other redeeming qualities about “Antebellum.”
Most of the performances from the supporting cast were just plain bad. They were either incredibly wooden with no dimension to their character at all, or they overacted so much that they felt as if they were coming right out of a bad high school play. There was no middle ground, which gave every scene a varying and disorienting amount of energy.
The dialogue in the film doesn’t do the actors any favors either. I swear, half the lines in this movie are just characters quoting books or philosophers to each other. They’ll be in mid-conversation and then suddenly just start spouting off quotes about America, inequality and the human condition. Does anybody actually talk like this? Just spewing whatever quotes come to mind? All of these quotes, outside of the film, are admirable. But when they’re spliced into the film at random, it makes it apparent that the film is talking directly to the audience without any remote sense of subtlety.
The lack of nuance also carries over into this film’s “major” plot twist. My God, the plot twist in this movie is so obvious that you could probably figure it out in the first act of the movie. It’s not even a good plot twist. It makes zero sense, and on a couple of occasions early on, the movie actively undermines this twist and removes all logic it may have.
The script seems to be written with the mindset that it has a secret that the viewer will never guess, but in reality the viewer likely already guessed it an hour ago and then discarded that theory because it doesn’t work. However, the film keeps the twist hanging over your head until the literal last shot of the movie, which leaves with more fury than any sense of resolution.
“Antebellum” had an interesting idea, but the execution of this idea was absolutely awful. The film tries to provide some grand, eye-opening experience, but it delivers its message in a blatant, heavy-handed and honestly lazy way, all while pretending to do the exact opposite.
It’s a film that is trying to be “woke,” but the final product is just as painful to experience as somebody unironically using the word woke.