If a film must begin with a quote, make it a good strong quote that means exactly what the movie has to say. “The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” goes the old William Faulkner chestnut that opens Antebellum, made inert and functionless from its overuse. A quote like that can get a movie stuck in the mud. The directing duo of Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz spin the proverbial wheels, praying for meaning by divine intervention or simple twists. Their almost-horror, not-quite-thriller picture fragments its runtime into split realities — aching, been-there-before concepts of the intermingled past and future — following the multiple-director problem of having a story with two diametrically opposed functions, running against one another. And yet, it tells us all it has to say before any of its gracefully color-coded frames tell the story. That quote, an obvious anachronism from a different time, spells out the function of the film’s intent quite clearly. And then it never rises above the challenge of this early mission statement.
Faulkner is rolling in his grave, scrambling to write a ten-page, one-sentence cease and desist order. Constantly running against the limitations of its own gotcha-premise, there is about a short film’s worth of plotting. The gifted singer and performer Janelle Monáe plays a duplicitous central role, as both an enslaved plantation worker and a liberated author, as the film careens between low-key Charlie Brooker and M. Night Shyamalan influences.
Antebellum opens with a one-shot, tracking through a plantation. It creates a direct, tangible sense of purpose with immediacy and clarity. By building a direct context-of-space, it’s able to structure and world-build this nightmare reality to genuine effect. The photography by Pedro Luque is richly detailed and has a few great shots. What it says and means about the inhabitants when it creates a vivid visual language and then punishes them for existing within the frame, is another matter.
It is a shame to utilize such talent and florid shot execution upon a wanting premise, where plantations are haunted houses and the flagrant abuses of its Black cast are played to suggest… eventual empowerment? It’s a grave misreading of the moment and able cast. It’s a profound time for Black cinema, and Black horror, especially. The stakes have been raised beyond mere exploitation, and while those stories serve their own noble purpose in their extreme expression, Antebellum is never curious enough to follow through on any direction it suggests.
Meddling in the background are the machinations of the modern horror picture. The sound brashly reminds us of what genre we’re in. Starkly under-designed, the film lets us know when it must startle us out of a bored, anxious slumber, when we must pay attention to its twists. It is part and parcel with how these films go, how their twists are structured. In the background, it is constantly shaping something we’ve seen ad infinitum.
Antebellum is a simple and reductive horror story. It utilizes racism and oppression as exploitative tools. For what? There is an absence of thoughtful curiosity, any genuinely provocative ideas, or meaningful exposition. While a nice looking movie, a handful of good shots can’t save the film from itself. It leaves the audience asking more questions than it answers — the most important among them: why?