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Non-Review Review: Antebellum

Antebellum never seems entirely sure whether it wants to be a biting social commentary or a pulpy genre exercise.

To be clear, this is a false dichotomy. One of the most interesting aspects of horror is how frequently it can satisfy both of those objectives. Get Out is perhaps the most obvious recent example of this, and it is telling that (like so many modern horrors) Antebellum markets itself as “from the producers of Get Out.” However, this has always been a feature of horror, as demonstrated by the films of directors like Wes Craven and John Carpenter. Antebellum shouldn’t have to choose between being socially relevant and being an effective horror, but it insists on doing so.

Shining some light on the matter.

There is a good movie buried somewhere in Antebellum. It is very clear that writers and directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz have a good idea that resonates in the current moment. Indeed, Antebellum hammers that point pretty heavily. It opens with a quote from William Faulkner, reminding audiences that “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.” In case the audience doesn’t get how that applies to the movie’s set-up, a character repeats it about forty minutes into the runtime. Antebellum has things to say, and is not shy about saying them.

However, what Antebellum is trying to say is muddled by a number of awkward structural choices. Antebellum is a film that is consciously built around a number of developments that are intended to wrong-foot the audience and catch them off-guard, to invite the viewer to ask questions about what is happening and why, and maybe even add some compelling gif-able content for the film’s marketing. This structuring of Antebellum is wrong-headed on a number of levels, but most profoundly in the way that it reduces the movie’s biting thesis to a cheap narrative hook.

Burning unease.

There is undoubtedly an earnestness to Antebellum. The version of the film that was screened for critics came with a well-intentioned introduction from Bush and Renz that very explicitly articulated what the duo were trying to say with the movie. The pair also positioned the film as a movie for this cultural moment, reflecting the anxieties and the chaos tearing through the United States, as the nation tried to reconcile its past and its present.

Of course, Antebellum was produced before the current pandemic and the ensuing social unrest. However, this hasn’t stopped any number of the summer’s big movies from tapping into contemporary anxieties about the feeling that time has come undone. If anything, Antebellum is a relatively tame example of a theme bubbling through films like TENET, Palm Springs, i’m thinking of ending things and Bill and Ted Face the Music.

Running over it again.

Antebellum is structured as a loose triptych. The first third of the story focuses on a slave plantation. Bush and Renz guide the viewer across the plantation with a sweeping camera movement, which seems intended to evoke both Gone with the Wind and Twelve Years a Slave in a single extended take. The result is dizzying and disorienting, submerging the viewer in the brutality of the Confederate South. The long take is reasonably effective, particularly in the context of introducing the audience to Eden, a slave who seems almost confused by the horrors around her.

Eden is played by Janelle Monáe. At the end of the first act, Antebellum talks a sharp turn, moving away from Eden on the plantation to focus on Veronica Henley. Veronica is a modern-day sociologist who has written books about systemic racism and who regularly appears on television to call out the injustices of modern culture. Veronica is also played by Janelle Monáe. The central tension in Antebellum is in trying to figure out exactly how Eden and Veronica relate to one another.

Break on through to the other side.

Antebellum is heavily invested in that suspense, in the audience’s efforts to figure out what connects Eden and Veronica. The movie’s marketting plays up the idea that the connection between the two is earth shattering, with release-day trailers urging audiences, “don’t give away the twist.” Indeed, Bush and Renz treat the movie’s big revelations as an exercise of themselves, as an end unto themselves, rather than employing them simply as tools in service of the larger story that Antebellum is trying to tell.

There are any number of great movies built around huge twists that fundamentally alter the way in which the audience approaches the story – The Sixth Sense, The Prestige, The Usual Suspects, and even Citizen Kane. However, the key to a good twist is that it is more than just a twist for its own sake. In many cases, the metric is rewatchability. The movie might be fundamentally different when the viewer watches it knowing the twist, but both movies need to be good movies in their own right.

Frankly my dear, I don’t give an Eden.

The weight that Antebellum places on this “twist” causes a number of problems for the film. The most obvious and superficial problem is that the connection between Eden and Veronica is the most obvious imaginable. The connective tissue between the plantation and the sociology tour is the straightest of lines. This renders the film’s structure frustrating on a number of levels, but most obviously in the way that the audience spends so much of the movie waiting for the script to acknowledge something that they have already deduced.

There is a more serious and fundamental problem with Antebellum‘s emphasis on big revelations. The structuring of the movie to artificially preserve certain plot developments undercuts any real attempt to make a point about modern America. Get Out is perhaps an interesting point of comparison here, another horror with a series of revelations. However, those revelations build organically and dynamically, in service of its central themes. Even if the particulars of the plot of Get Out only become clear late in the game, it is always clear what the film is about.

On the lookout.

Antebellum does have a strong central thesis statement that is not so much articulated as yelled – the aforementioned Faulkner quote is very much the movie grabbing its audience by the ears and telling them what it is trying to say. The United States has never really put its past to rest, and it is much closer to the present than many would like to acknowledge. However, the film doesn’t have room to develop that idea, to explore it, to poke at it. It just keeps making it over and over again, because it cannot expand on it until the nature of the game becomes clear to the audience.

It doesn’t help matters that the structuring of Antebellum throws the movie tonally off-balance as well. The first third of Antebellum is brutal and violent, unflinching in its portrayals of the horrors that slavery inflicted on African Americans. There is undoubtedly a place for movies exploring such horrors, but there is too sharp a shift into the film’s second act, which is essentially just the opening act of a more conventional horror film shifted into the middle of the movie. While the shift is ambitious, it doesn’t work. It’s jarring, but not an in effective way.

“Come play with us.
And our genre tropes.”

There is one moment at which Antebellum seems to realise the movie that it might otherwise have been. At the climax, the protagonist flees for life. She gallops on horseback through a forest towards a clearing. She stumbles out of it, into the shadow of a gigantic statue. The statue is of General Robert E. Lee, the Confederate war hero. It’s a moment that ties together the movie’s blurring of past and present into a cohesive and powerful statement, effectively suggesting the ways in which the past not only haunts the present, but in which this is desired and intentional.

One character in Antebellum meditates on the importance of “the exorcism of the unconscious past” if the United States is to move on, instead of finding itself trapped in a loop of perpetual violence and retribution. It is an awkward moment, in which the script turns to a supporting cast member to exposit the core theme of the film around her. After all, it is this exchange that drops the Faulkner quote from the titlecard into conversation, for any audience members not paying attention.

Antebellum is ultimately too conscious of what it is doing, too carefully designed, too rigidly structured. However, all of that care and design is in service of the movie’s genre elements – its twists and revelations, its memetic moments, its audience-baiting. None of that care and design has been devoted to what the movie is trying to say. The result is a movie that feels strangely hollow and empty, which is a major problem given how earnestly Antebellum wants to be a film that offers a snapshot of this cultural moment.

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