A film review by Craig J. Koban October 5, 2020

ANTEBELLUM jjj

2020, R, 105 mins.

Janelle MonŠe as Veronica  /  Jena Malone as Elizabeth  /  Robert Aramayo as Daniel  /  Kiersey Clemons as Julia  /  Jack Huston as Captain Jasper  /  Gabourey Sidibe as Dawn

Written and directed by Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz

 

I'm going to find it next to impossible to discuss this film in any detail without going into some of its twists and turns.

  

ANTEBELLUM is, on a basic level, a psychological horror thriller that - much like GET OUT before it - uses the trappings of the genre to speak out about how racial tensions and the horrors of systemic bigotry affects the modern world.  Where this Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz effort does manage to one-up Jordan Peele's Oscar winning film is in its fairly ingenious plot twisty premise (which I'll get into in a bit and won't shy away from discussing, seeing as the marketing campaign for the film went out of its way to tip it off).  ANTEBELLUM emerges as something even more unsettling when more is revealed about, shall we say, the film's internal reality.  Not all of it works as well as the makers here think it does, but it's undeniably a potent and compelling watch, despite some of its creative mistakes. 

At least as far as its sensationally well realized opening sections are concerned, ANTEBELLUM seems like it's going to be a period drama set on a Civil War era plantation, and one that chronicles the daily physical and emotional trauma that slaves face while there.  There's an introductory tracking shot that's as good as any that I've seen, which swoops in and out of what appears to be a Southern plantation and residing mansion.  It's all presented in one fluid take (granted, with some editorial tricks here and there to hide the cuts) that gives viewers a rose-tinted and heavily romanticized portrait of slave owner life, replete with playing white children, incredibly well maintained front lawns, and a sprawling mansion so clean and manicured that you could eat off of the walls.  Then the camera begins to slowly and meticulous descend into the moral abyss of the times as we see multiple slaves tending to the fields and picking cotton while nearby soldiers begin to prep for combat.  When the shot finally ends we witness the tortuous beating of one slave by his handlers, which leads to a brutal murder. 

From here, we're introduced to a slave named Eden (Janelle Moane) who is new to the plantation in question and is forced against her will to give up everything she once had in life...even her name.  One Confederate soldier (Eric Lange) ruthlessly decides to take Eden as her own, resorting to branding her as a display of possessive force.  While trying to deal with the daily, hellish grind of slave life, Eden comes in contact with Eli (Tongayi Chirisa), who has experienced his own form of loss in having witnessed his wife being gunned down by Captain Jasper (Jack Huston).  Eli desperately wants to launch an escape plan, which is with its obvious risks, and he even tries to enlist in Edin's help, but she's so traumatized by fear of her owners that she can't possibly contemplate ever leaving safely.  She simply sees no way out of the plantation and refuses Eli's assistance whenever he offers it. 

 

 

Then...ANTEBELLUM takes a very, very weird turn. 

The film then sharply - and without much warming - segues to the modern day as we meet Veronica (also played by Monae), who's an extremely successful author and sociologist that partakes in many a conference that involves motivational speaking that she hopes will empowered her largely minority audience.  She has a loving husband and daughter and lives in an ultra swank high-rise apartment, obviously experiencing the spoils of being an influential civil rights activists and social media sensation.  Not everything is cheery for Veronica, though, as she's being cyber stalked by a woman (an unnerving Jena Malone) for unspecified or revealed reasons.  One trip to New Orleans to hang out with her BFFs in Sarah (Lily Cowles) and Dawn (Gabourey Sidibe) turns bad awfully quick, as she's cornered and trapped by her mad stalker, who incapacitates her.  When Veronica wakes up...she discovers that she has been time warped back to the same plantation described earlier and is very much a slave. 

Paging Rod Serling. 

Now, okay, just what in the h-e-double hockey sticks is going on here with this absolutely bonkers, TWILIGHT ZONE-esque film?  What reality here is genuine?  Edin's or Veronica's?  Moreover, is Edin actually Veronica?  And if so, how did she get zapped from 2020 back to the mid-19th Century?  The tantalizing questions that begin to unfold in ANTEBELLUM's latter half are indeed enthralling, and the makers here do a remarkably stellar job at introducing us to both worlds of the past and present and then colliding them two thirds of the way through without providing much in the way of explanations until the final gut punch of a third act reveal.  There's some clear WTF levels of overt audience manipulation here (especially when the story radically departs Edin's story and jumps to the present day without anything in the way of any kind of rationalization, which throws audiences members - myself included - for a real loop).  There was a point in ANTEBELLUM where even an astute viewer like myself was wondering if I got haphazardly dumped in a whole different movie altogether, which all but shows how well the misdirection works here in the scripting department. 

And again, the intro sections of the film are so grimly effective that you legitimately feel like ANTEBELLUM is going to unfold as a period slavery drama.  For the first thirty-plus minutes, Bush and Renz pull absolutely zero punches in terms of cementing us within the futile ghastliness of Edin's situation, who not only has to face the arduous toil of being slave labor, but also the burden of being nightly raped by her owner.  In one terrifying sequence involving a plantation dinner, one of Edin's newest confidants is offered up as a sacrificial lamb to one soldier, who's instructed by his superior to pick any slave he wants to have his way with.  In moments like this and many more, ANTEBELLUM is heartbreaking and savage in its barbarism.  Much of this is held together by the commanding performance (or...dual performance) by a mesmerizing Monae, who has a very tricky acting challenge here of playing two roles (or...one), with one showing intense levels of Edin's paralyzing fear and the other showcasing Veronica as an empowered woman of her time that ends up in what has to be described as every black person's nightmare scenario.  The camera lingers on Monae's face at various stages of mental distress throughout, which is a wise creative choice.  You gain an immediate sense of the sheer hopeless magnitude of the predicament that these characters find themselves in with the most simplest of close-ups. 

I can easily understand, though, how this film might confuse and polarize some viewers.  The lightning quick transition from past to present - and with seemingly incongruent characters apparently out of time with one another and without much in the way of a tangible correlation outside of being played by the same actress - may be too much for some tastes (it's staggeringly jarring).  And there's most definitely some sections of the film that work better than others.  Based on its three act structure, I'd say the first and last act work the finest - with the first being close to masterful - and the middle passages tending to bounce around from scene to scene without much of a purpose (that is until it eventually pays off and segues into the reality breaking twist of the plot).  I also thought that some of the supporting characters (especially the white villains) are presented as broad, one note antagonists (Malone in particular hams it up to semi-campy levels that sometimes betrays the solemnity of the underlining material).  I will also concede that for as well oiled as ANTEBELLUM's final climax is, it still involves some pretty obligatory action involving a daring escape, horse and foot chases, and physical altercations.  Granted, Bush and Renz end it all on one powerful shot that sums up everything quite well while tying the sins of yesterday with other sins of today. 

And, yeah, the gangbusters premise and  the way the directors take malicious glee in completely subverting our expectations, (not to mention their overall execution of this very timely material) is to their credit.   ANTEBELLUM is the kind of real world horror thriller that works so much better if one has seen next to no promotional material (or even its teaser campaign) for it (in our day and age, that's next to impossible for most).  The relevance of its themes are unquestionable, especially for how there exists (even today for some ungodly reason) a social-political debate about the necessity of still having statues and monuments erected in the U.S. that celebrates the Civil War and Confederate leaders in far too uncomfortable of an aura (which has spawned a newfound intensifying of the racial divide in the country).  That, and ANTEBELLUM works well as a sobering and haunting juxtaposition piece that shows the differences between slave and master life and how elements of that still seep their way into contemporary culture.  Is the film too on the nose with its parables?  Maybe.  I've seen some reviewers lambaste ANTEBELLUM for being ruthlessly exploitive of one of the worst institutions in human history.  Hmmmm....I'm not sure I'd go to that extreme.  I think Bush and Renz's film is far too well acted, scrupulously constructed, and well shot to devolve into B-grade grindhouse fare.  But it's certainly a chillingly provocative genre piece that works overtime to ruthlessly pull the rug out from under viewers and thrown them off in unexpectedly and genuinely disturbing ways.

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