Antebellum aims big and charges down the pitch with the biggest possible swing to clear the boundary ropes. Sadly it ends up being stumped with no way of getting back due to a story that loses itself repeatedly.
A plantation in the South is overrun with cruelty; slaves are not permitted to talk to one another or risk the punishment from their abusive Confederate owners. Eden (Janelle Monáe) has had enough of this hell and is determined to break free, yet in a world enveloped in fear, how possible will it be for her and those around her to get away?
A story that has all of the potential in the world and at such an important time, it should be a home run of a film. Still, for some reason, it decides to twist and turn so much that it ties itself up into a rather unfortunate knot. There is simply no need for the turn that it takes. That first act is fantastic if a little much. The idea of having the victims so broken that they go with what is happening to them is a strong one. By having this premise, we are visually brought into an unthinkable world and Antebellum certainly world builds very well. It is hampered by being unforgivingly brutal, without ever fully getting to its point until much later into the film. You will wince and want to look away as each act continues. Say what you will about Antebellum; that first act sticks with you with its horror.
Yet, you can almost live with the twists, as over the top as they are if you have antagonists who are more than just cardboard cut-outs. There is no depth to them. Instead of having these Confederates and slave owners have dimensions, such as Michael Fassbender’s Edwin Epps in 12 Years a Slave, they offer nothing. Sure, their actions are despicable, but we need more now than to have a stereotypical evil presence, especially when we consider how much time we spend with them.
Antebellum feels more like an endurance event than a film trying to tell a story by not expanding on those characters with their thoughts and motivations. Perhaps that was Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz‘s point, which these men and women are just mindless and should concentrate on the victims. Sadly this doesn’t come through in what we see on the screen. Instead, their point about white supremacy is lost in an overburdened script that seems to what to show how clever it is rather than make an important point.
Despite the negatives there, there is a lot to like in the film. The sense of fear never leaves you as the co-directors Bush and Renz amp up the threat level to our characters. We see how ruthless these people are, and we have legit fear as to what will happen to Eden and co as they try and figure a way to freedom. This fear is presented magnificently by Pedro Luque’s camera and Roman GianArthur and Nate Wonders score. There is excellent work carried out, and the film should be commended for the film looks and sounds.
Unfortunately, it is just when that rug is pulled from under your feet. All bets are off with how you feel about the film. You could very well love the twists; however, on this side, it simply doesn’t work, so when that final act comes, we wonder why we spent so long in the middle.
Janelle Monáe does her best here as Eden. Still, in truth, it is a thankless task as her outstanding talents are wasted in Antebellum. The fear that Eden goes through hits you, the pain and misery compound to have us want to drag the poor woman to safety, and Monáe truly delivers with a powerful performance. Unfortunately, for the vast majority of the cast, everyone seems to have been given notes to overact. Thus you never really believe them in a film with satirical moments but tries to play it straight.
Word for the wise, though, if you have not seen the trailer yet, make sure that stays the case, as everything is practically presented that will dilute any surprises the film has to offer. Antebellum is a heavily flawed film that is only saved by the stellar work of Monáe.
Antebellum is on Digital Download, Blu-ray™ and DVD 2 August from Lionsgate UK.
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