ANTEBELLUM (2020), a new movie written and directed by Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz, and starring singer/songwriter/actress Janelle Monae [HIDDEN FIGURES (2016) and MOONLIGHT (2016)], is a powerful hybrid drama/horror movie that while not always successful remains disturbing throughout.
In fact, the first third of this movie is as unsettling an opening to a movie as I’ve seen in a while.
ANTEBELLUM begins at a southern plantation during the years of the Civil War, and it’s run by a very sadistic group of Confederate soldiers. Slaves are shot, branded, not allowed to speak without permission, and the women are regularly offered to the soldiers for sexual pleasure.
Eden (Janelle Monae) is for reasons unknown the slave who others turn to for leadership, but she resists, urging those around her to be patient for the right time. The last time she attempted an escape, people were killed, and the sadistic Senator Denton (Eric Lange) who runs the plantation branded Eden when she wouldn’t say her name. Denton has a thing for Eden and keeps her as his personal slave.
The day to day operations at the plantation are run by Captain Jasper (Jack Huston) who is exceedingly cruel.
As I said, the first third of this movie is as unpleasant at it can get and is not easy to sit through.
Then, one night, as Eden lies in bed, she hears a cell phone ringing, and when she opens her eyes she’s in the here and now in 2020 and her name is Veronica and she is a successful author with a loving husband and a cute young daughter.
The film switches gears here, big time, and the audience of course is wondering, how is this going to tie in to what we saw earlier?
Rest assured, things do tie in, but it’s in a reveal that isn’t entirely successful. For starters, it reminded me an awful lot of the twist in the ill-fated THE VILLAGE (2004). It wasn’t quite as jarring as that one, but it will raise a few eyebrows, that’s for sure!
Writer/directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz have constructed a story that for the most part works but doesn’t entirely. The first third of the tale, which takes place on the plantation, is heavy and disturbing. When things switch to 2020, the tone shifts, and Gabourey Sidibe and Lily Cowles liven things up with some comedic relief as Veronica’s girlfriends Dawn and Sarah. Their night on the town is a real hoot. And it’s during these sequences that there’s a sinister undercurrent, as the audience knows that at some point this is going to connect to the horrors seen in the opening of the movie.
While both these sections of the film work, they are not without their problems, as the pacing remains methodical, the emotions charged but not off the charts, the tension present, but not riveting.
And then the third act comes along. The twist is huge, and while it didn’t ruin the movie for me, it’s a challenge to accept. That being said, a lot of things have happened during the last four years that I though would never happen, and so I’m inclined to view this twist with less incredulity than I would have prior to 2016.
And if you can get past the twist, the third act is very good. It’s satisfying to watch Eden fight back after suffering thoughout all the horrors of the first act of this movie. I thought the ending was very satisfying.
The cast is very good. Janelle Monae is excellent as Eden/Veronica. I think I still prefer her performance in HIDDEN FIGURES to this one, but she still packs a wallop here. And her climactic struggle with the main female baddie Elizabeth (Jena Malone) is one of the best scenes in the movie.
Speaking of Malone, she’s cold and proper as Elizabeth, the southern belle who runs the plantation. She also gets one of the better lines in the movie when, after Eden has disposed of most of the male soldiers in her way, Elizabeth steps forward and declares that as always is the case, it takes a woman to pick things up after a man has made a mess of them.
Jack Huston, the grandson of John Huston, and nephew of Angelica Huston and Danny Huston, is annoyingly cruel as Captain Jasper. I’d say he’s the best villain in the film, except Eric Lange is just as good as the depraved Denton.
And as I said, Gabourey Sidibe and Lily Cowles are enjoyable as Veronica’s friends Dawn and Sarah.
The film also has a powerfully haunting music score by Roman GianArthur Irvin and Nate “Rocket” Wonder.
The other thing I liked about ANTEBELLUM is it contains some powerful cinematic images. The scene where the Confederate soldiers chant “blood and soil” was chilling, reminiscent of the real life scene in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017.
There’s also a scene featuring a statue of Robert E. Lee, and some potent images involving fire.
All in all, I liked ANTEBELLUM a lot. Not quite as good as GET OUT (2017), but certainly a horror/drama worth checking out. Some may not be able to get past the twist, but if you can, and I did, there’s a lot to like about this thought-provoking and very disturbing movie.
I’m glad to see (however it ends in the movie) that we appear to be starting to marry the Horror genre to Real Life and our moments in history. This IS where Horror lives, and ignoring it in fiction has resulted in the loss of readers and the exodus of writers and aspiring writers… including the certain loss of Literary writing in the genre… Perhaps we can “take a page” from the film industry on this one?