Movie review: ‘Antebellum’ suggests that there are all sorts of horror stories to tell
“Antebellum” is not, as it’s being advertised, a horror film. Certainly not the sort that comes to mind when you think of the term “horror film.” Its contents and its messages are frightening and the protagonists are in grave danger. But the expertly crafted trailer is misleading and is not representative of the film.
So, what exactly is this first feature from co-writer/directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz? That’s a question that adventurous filmgoers might not want answered beforehand. Hint: It’s in turn, a grim drama, a tense thriller, a searing damnation of racism, and a big, sinister puzzle.
The opening moments feature a lengthy tracking shot that introduces a big mansion on a Southern plantation, a happy little girl and her loving mom, Confederate soldiers marching through the property, and worn-down black folks - slaves - all around, doing chores.
It’s made clear right away that there will be acts of brutality. Soldiers drag away one of the male slaves, his wife screams and runs, but is chased after, lassoed and, per her terrified wishes, shot by the malevolent Commander Jasper (Jack Huston). Things don’t get any easier to watch in a small house, where a shackled female slave, Eden (Janelle Monáe), is whipped by a Confederate general (Eric Lange) who tells her, “I’m responsible for you now and I will tame your savage ways.” She has tried to escape, and her punishment is being smacked around and branded by the general.
This is an awful place. Commander Jasper forces his cotton picker slaves to sing or whistle while they work, but beats them if they speak. The happy little girl and her mom inspect new slave arrivals, and the girl names each of them, “like pets.” Jasper tells these folks, “Wherever you were before and whatever small freedoms you enjoyed, that’s all over.”
But maybe there’s some hope from Eden. Other slaves look up to her, talk in secret with her. One determined man whispers, “We must try again.” A desperate woman pleads, “What is the plan?” Is Eden some sort of slave leader?
But before that can be contemplated, the general gives a pep talk to his men, bragging about a recent defeat of union troops, who he labels “traitors to America,” while Eden watches, silently and angrily.
The repulsive aura of the film goes up a notch when it’s revealed that the general has been forcing Eden to have sex with him, and it’s just after she falls asleep next to him, at about the 40-minute mark, that she wakes to the sound of a cell phone’s ring, is with her husband Nick (Marque Richardson) in their New York apartment, and announces that she’s had another bad dream. She’s a sociologist and author, a specialist on the disenfranchisement of black people in America, and her name is Veronica.
This sudden shift hasn’t even begun to sink in when she gets a video call from a stranger named Elizabeth (Jena Malone), who seems to be baiting Veronica with racist comments. It was during their talk that I thought, “Hold on, did I already see this Elizabeth character?” But there’s no time to wonder because Veronica flies off to another city, to speak about black opportunities, accompanied by her longtime pal Dawn (Gabourey Sidibe), who lights up the film with a big, bright, sassy, funny, take-charge attitude.
Wait, isn’t that Elizabeth breaking into Veronica’s hotel room and ... that little girl with her ... haven’t we seen her before? No time to think about that because Veronica’s Uber has just arrived and once inside, she’s knocked unconscious, only to wake up next to the general, as Eden.
By now, astute viewers will have thought, “What’s going on here?” more than once. I wondered: Is this a nod to “The Twilight Zone?” Are the two directors’ names actually a pseudonym for M. Night Shyamalan?
No. But in getting to the truth, you’ll be seeing a harsh, violent film that’s filled with sharp, clever writing, and actors giving it their all. Its storyline speaks to today, frighteningly. You will know what’s going on by the end, and some revelations continue into the credits. Thinking about it now, I’ve changed my mind. I guess it is a horror film.
“Antebellum” will be released on VOD starting on Sept. 18.
Ed Symkus can be reached at email@example.com.
Written and directed by Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz
With Janelle Monáe, Eric Lange, Jack Huston, Gabourey Sidibe, Marque Richardson