Directed By Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz
Starring – Janelle Monae, Eric Lange, Jena Malone
The Plot – Successful author Veronica Henley (Monae) finds herself trapped in a horrifying reality and must uncover the mind-bending mystery before it’s too late.
Rated R for disturbing violent content, adult language, and sexual references
– Intoxicating presentation. A strange juxtaposition for a movie this sinister in its horrifying themes is the majestic decisions of artistry used to make these landscapes serene and the color corrections dazzle. This is all seen through the lens of Technicolor, which vibrantly warms Pedro Luque’s luscious cinematography to near three-dimensional quality of immersive resonance. Much of the wardrobe choices are given enhanced definition when put against the backdrop of a color so opposite to what they convey in the foreground, and the lighting of the set design itself is able to bleed into many different scenes it otherwise wouldn’t because of the eye for detail that a lens this expansive is able to fruitfully document. Finally, the slow motion effects work creates a hypnotically entrancing experience that doesn’t sacrifice detail for what is typically disappointingly obscured. It’s very much life taking shape from every moment and influence that revolves around the character in frame, and cements a beautifully ironic indulgence that doesn’t lose any of the effectiveness because of its unconventional gloss.
– Powerful imagery. Even with so much of the violence depicted in scenes falling a bit short for me for how it lacks realism, the impact of some deep-seeded imagery isn’t lost on anyone with a thirst for poetic justice. Some of it feels unique, in that when placed coherently with the glow of a luminous sunset feels rare for the minimal amount of time that could’ve been allowed for such perfection. Others turn the table on the history of racism accordingly, supplanting the victims with their own moments judgment that dares them to fill the shoes of their oppressors. On the experimental side, there’s a series of daring movements and split-screen dynamics between multiple characters that not only pays an homage to the tinsel age of Hollywood cinema, but also refreshingly inserted with a context that doesn’t hinder or interrupt the attention span of the scene they accommodate.
– Tug of war. Everyone involved gives an emotionally stirring portrayal of their respective roles, but it’s the leading ladies of Monae and Malone that truly steal the show, and further illustrate a varying shade of dimensional depth to their registry. For Monae, it’s the chance to finally lead as a film’s central protagonist, a gift that she doesn’t squander with inexperience. Instead, Janelle balances the weight of her character’s tortured ancestors and the power that comes with being an iconic black woman in current day. Her transitions feel earned, but yet pleasantly spontaneous, alluding to the mental anguish that this character faces that we might not even feel fully privy to by film’s end. For Malone, she solidifies herself as possibly the best female antagonist, supplanting confidence and self-justification for the deeds she commits throughout the film. Malone never has to yell or go over the top with her demeanor, instead boiling the threat in the earnestness of her deliveries, which always dissolves the confidence we have in her opposition.
– Timely relevant. “Antebellum” was originally due out in April of this year, but was untimely shelved because of the Covid scare. However, I feel like this is one reschedule that comes as a blessing to optimists of the film seeking out the best experience. The obvious is that it echoes a lot of what is transpiring in the thick of things with the current Black Lives Matter movement, and how even in 2020 race is still a dominating factor in the prejudice that oppresses minorities, but subliminally it’s the dialogue and relatability between generations shown in the film that prove that as much as time has passed since slavery, so much about it remains the same. The way this is articulated in matters you otherwise wouldn’t think about in that way is brilliant, but it’s the way each scene outlines the bigger picture to the audience without clumsily conveying such is much more appreciated, and all proves that this may be the perfect film to represent the struggle for power that has elevated to the forefront of the media throughout this summer.
– Flat twist. This twist is not only ridiculous from a logical standpoint, but also insulting when you consider how it demeans something with such historical significance, and by film’s end it disjoints the execution of the narrative in a way that loses meaning in the heart of its meaty material. The problem is that the longer you think about it, the more it overcomplicates both the editing and the linear narrative of the story. It’s sloppily transitioned, easily predictable, and especially cartoonish by film’s end, an adjective that you never want to use when describing something as important as slavery. I can appreciate the ideas enough with what they were going for in tying the generations together, but the twists lack enough emphasis in making them anything but incoherent for the audience, and will require mental anguish when trying to figure out just what direction this movie is trying to convey.
– False advertising. “Antebellum” has what I still feel is one of the best trailers of the year, combining horrifying imagery and science fiction encompassing to make something that rivals the work of its producer, Jordan Peele. Unfortunately, the latter of those genre descriptions is nowhere to be found in this film, and the end result is something much more unfortunately grounded than we were led to believe. I don’t feel like I got the movie that I was promised, but even worse than that the trailer contains what is few-and-far-between the only action or moments of excitement that this film has to offer, so I feel like I saw the best that it had to offer before I ever actually saw the movie. It’s dirty marketing at its finest, and proves that the producers had no confidence in the film contained, so they had to do everything in their power to sell it as something it so evidently is not.
– Dull script. I feel like this switcheroo gimmick could’ve worked if some of the acts themselves in the movie were placed in different order, but that’s an entirely different problem all together. For my money, the biggest adversity that this movie has is overcoming a screenplay that does nothing to keep you interested or intrigued at where the narrative will unfold. Part of that is on the underwritten characterization, which balances between rich and powerful characters or characters in chains. There is no third dimensional to the pawns in this film. The other problem is in its sluggish development, which brings along no additional subplots to the central plot that can only end one of two ways. 70 minutes into this movie, nothing happens, nor does the plot progress in a way that justifies the previous investment, and I wish it would’ve flirted a little bit more with even obvious foreshadowing, if only to just set a precedent or goal for something to keep us captivated.
– Underwhelming action and violence. There’s a distinct smell of first time feature film director scattered throughout this film, but specifically in the scenes of physical confrontation, which can’t bottle an ounce of urgency between them. Some of the problem deals with the framing of each image in focus, primarily feeling so close that it can only physically document one character at each time, but the bigger problem is in the choreography of the engagement, which feels like it took the worst parts of a Quentin Tarantino movie. The lines of dialogue during these sequences are also especially cringe, sounding like a five-year-old wrote it to get back at a school bully, but the violence feels distant and so influenced by post production, both in the hokey sound mixing and and jarring pacing to omit the lack of chemistry. It’s as sloppy of a fight scene that I’ve seen put together in quite sometime, and undervalues the payoff that we’ve been put through the ringer for.
– Middle act. What a crushing blow to a first act that not only showed a lot of promise in the technique of its duo of filmmakers, but also set us up for an inevitable confrontation with everything on the line. From there, we get a second act that is as brunt of a momentum halter as a speedbump, and makes everything that follows feel obvious for the way this out of nowhere direction is shoehorned into the film at this particular moment. If you wanted to add these moments of tension breaking in between scenes at the plantation, then fine. That would only make the break feel temporary instead of completely leaving for nearly an entire half hour, and would do wonders for a pacing that completely dies because of this lump in the middle that feels like an entirely different film together. The intention is obviously to build characterization, because the tragedy feels more defined when you see what this character has come from, but this area of the script does her zero favors in terms of likeability, and registers nothing that feels even remotely as compelling as the two acts surrounding it.
– Forced exposition. The causes and messages of this movie are entirely important, and in a perfect world, slavery would’ve never existed in the first place. But that doesn’t stop the movie’s heavy-handed dialogue from sometimes getting the best of itself through these lengthy cinematic diatribes that are anything but synthetic. One scene in particular takes place during that faulty second act that I mentioned previously, and deals with Monae’s character quite literally giving a speech on the values of equality. It doesn’t feel naturally woven into the story, nor does a line where everything and everyone stop for her to look at her daughter, which is virtually us because of a camera angle that is practically point-of-view, to say “What looks like anger, is really just fear”. Powerful line, but not one that transfers seamlessly to depicting natural humanistic characters. It’s best to always let the material do the talking, and let the audience attain the message by themselves, not spoon-feed them with preachy dialogue that borders propaganda instead of immersive cinema.
My Grade: 4/10 or D-