You can tell that something is “off” about the world of Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz’s artful and harrowing but frustratingly half-baked “Antebellum” from the very first shot. An exorcism thriller about the moral inertia of a country that refuses to give up its ghosts, this provocative debut opens with a five-minute oner that wends through a Louisiana plantation with a supernatural grace, as if the slaves, jailers, and soldiers who drift through the frame aren’t going about their lives so much as they’re performing a choreographed roleplay of America’s original sin, like robots following their loops in a horribly problematic new amusement park from the company behind “Westworld.”
Maybe it’s the sinewy camera movements, and the super-real beauty they layer over the darkest chapter of a national history that’s speckled with blood on every page. Maybe it’s how the shot eventually lands on the broken face of a captured runaway named Eden and played by a locked Janelle Monáe, a mega-talented polymath who’s aced period roles before (“Hidden Figures”), but still shimmers with the space age glow of the afro-futurist android she’s embodied in her music. Or maybe it’s the fact that the trailers have given away this movie’s foundational secret with a kind of “people hate paying for a surprise” cynicism we haven’t really seen since Robert Zemeckis decided audiences couldn’t handle the suspense of “Cast Away” and “What Lies Beneath” on their own (this review will do its best to dance around the twist, which begins to unravel at the end of the first act).
One way or another, “Antebellum” palpably inflects its vision of the past with glimmers of the present — even the Faulkner quote that Bush and Renz paste across the screen at the start of the movie seems to suggest a “Twilight Zone”-esque atemporality. The next thing you know, a troop of Confederate soldiers is shouting a Nazi chant as they march through a torch-lit night. Such anachronisms help flavor the opening 30 minutes of a film that otherwise seems like a familiar plantation drama, albeit an especially poised and merciless one in which the horrors of slavery are churned through the horrors of genre; Jack Huston’s sadistic overseer institutes a stifling policy of silence that he enforces with the supersonic hearing of the monsters in “A Quiet Place.”
Eden and her fellow slaves — including an impatient new arrival played by Kiersey Clemons and a towering portrait of stoicism played by Tongayi Chirisa — do what slaves could. They pick cotton by day, plot their escape by night, and suffer all manner of dehumanizing indignities in between. Eden is expected to lead, but she can’t seem to find the strength to speak up. The mystery percolating in the film’s margins is kept in check by patient storytelling and steely direction that flirts with exploitation but never tips over into the schlock predicted by the Lionsgate logo in the opening credits, or the genre thrills promised by a sharp and coiled musical score by Roman Gianarthur and Wonder that sounds like a symphony wrapped in barbed wire.
And then everything changes. We’re introduced to a second character played by Monáe: A modern Black intellectual named Veronica who lives in a crazy beautiful apartment with her heartthrob of a husband (“Dear White People” breakout Marque Richardson), their adorable daughter, and a framed PhD in African Constitutional History from Columbia. Veronica just published a new book about the need for Black women to be heard — “Shedding the Coping Persona” — and the scene where she destroys some old white guy’s “we’re a post-racial country” argument on a CNN-like panel show is proof enough that she lives her truth loudly enough that some people might want to silence her.
Slavery might not exist in the age of Uber, vegans, and Lizzo (at least not in the same form it takes in our American history textbooks), but Eden and Veronica’s plights soon intersect in a way that literalizes the increasingly self-evident truths that have kept this country straitjacketed in place, even as centuries of growth threaten to tear it apart at the seams.
Is that vague enough? Probably not, but people who love to solve movies will decode “Antebellum” well before it reaches the halfway point, and the rest of us won’t be far behind.
There’s no need to rush: Whatever errant guesses you make about the nature of Eden and Veronica’s connection are likely more intriguing than the truth. Perhaps Eden is one of Veronica’s ancestors? In a film about how the disenfranchisement of Black people is written into the DNA of this country, that might be the most logical solution. Of course, they could also be different incarnations of the same soul, à la “Cloud Atlas,” or — just to spitball a twist that no one would ever dare to put in a real movie — stuck in a hyper-real computer simulation programmed by Matthew McConaughey’s teenage son.
At the end of the day, the specifics aren’t super important. What matters is that putting these two characters in the same movie ostensibly allows Bush and Renz to confront the fact that America’s past isn’t separate from its present, safely petrified inside the marble of Confederate statues and the concrete of bridges named after white supremacists like Edmund Pettus. Not that anyone should need the reminder after four years (and one especially painful summer) of watching the President of the United States get nostalgic for “the good old days” and say the quiet part out loud.
Whiteness has always existed to push things counterclockwise and put Black people back in whatever chains are on hand, and what used to be an ulterior motive is now the closest thing the GOP has to a platform. Eden and Veronica might be separated by almost 200 years, but they suffer under the same curse. This is a film about how a Nazi chant in the mid-19th century feels more anachronistic than killing people for being Black does in the 21st. The past isn’t dead, it’s just waiting to be presentable again.
“Antebellum” speaks to that truth without fleshing it out. Bush and Renz shoot every scene with the kind of tension and control that suggests the duo might have a bright future on the big screen, but their script adopts a self-defeating structure that doesn’t blur the line between past and present so much as, well, the exact opposite. The film’s contorted shape is designed to get the most out of its twist — to help the bombshell land softly and then ripple throughout the rest of the story in both directions. And it works to a certain extent: The realization of what’s going on dawns on you in waves, and it’s fun to watch as they crash on the shore. But once the water recedes, the rest of the movie goes out to sea along with it.
After the intensity of the first act, the second can’t but feel inert and predictable by comparison; there are no surprises left, and also too much world-building to get through for the movie to pierce deeper into racial politics. It follows Veronica as she pals around New Orleans with her best friends (an exuberant Gabourey Sidibe and a wasted Lily Cowles), and their night on the town is riddled with the kind of ambient racism that likes to hide in plain sight. Monae is as magnetic in Veronica’s empowerment as she is in Eden’s captivity, but there’s a serious disconnect between how one character finds her voice and how the other is challenged to use it. And unlike in a vaguely similar work like “Slave Play,” neither of those voices are allowed to grow deeper.
The last 30 minutes are meant to collapse time onto itself, but they unspool in a way that feels detached from everything that came before it; silly and bombastic and to the disservice of some good ideas. “Antebellum” is spliced together in a way that runs counter to its message — it cordons off America’s bloody past into its own designated zone, and sometimes reaches its claws into the present in order to snag new prey and drag it back to its den for dinner.
Even the most satisfying payoffs feels like missed opportunities, if only because we don’t get to see them along with an audience roaring in approval. That’s not fair, but what has been this year? Initially slated to be released this past April before it was delayed until the end of the most contentious summer in recent American history, “Antebellum” might have been a movie that met this awful moment, but its confused attempt at seeing yesterday in today resolves as a throwback to a time when anyone could actually overlook it in good faith.
Lionsgate will release “Antebellum” on VOD on Friday, September 18.