Review: ‘Antebellum’ undercuts creative thriller premise with pacing issues

WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews 'Antebellum'

Even the most shocking movie twists can be undercut by unfocused execution.

That’s the case with the new straight-to-streaming release “Antebellum,” a twisty thriller that makes us think that it’s one thing, only to completely flip the script with a hell of a twist that would hit us harder if there were a tighter structure and pacing in its reveal.

The film opens on a Louisiana plantation where Eden (Janelle Monáe) works the cotton fields under ruthless slave masters wearing Confederate gray uniforms. Meanwhile, modern-day author Veronica Henley (also Monáe) is haunted by horrific visions of slave brutality as she embarks on a business trip to give a book talk in the big city.

It’s great seeing Monáe in a lead film role after TV’s “Homecoming.” It completes her evolution from singer to actress, from NASA scientist in “Hidden Figures” (2016) to stepmom in “Moonlight” (2016) to underground railroad leader in “Harriet” (2019). In “Antebellum,” she finally takes center stage as an empathetic vessel for audiences.

Surrounding her in the modern-day storyline are Marque Richardson (“True Blood”) as husband Nick and Gabourey Sidibe (“Precious”) as her club-going best friend Dawn. On the plantation, you’ll recognize Eric Lange (“Narcos”) as the Confederate general referred to only as “Him” and Jena Malone (“Into the Wild”) as the slave master’s wife.

Needless to say, the plantation sequences are extremely hard to watch, featuring the type of brutal slave-drama violence associated with “Roots” (1977) and “12 Years a Slave” (2013). These harrowing acts are certainly historical fact, but they’ve been done to death on screen to the point that Jai Jamison’s “Slave Cry” spoofed them as cliché.

Thankfully, debut feature writer/directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz (“Shame”) try something different with the juxtaposition of Ubers, hotels and restaurants. Don’t worry, this isn’t a spoiler; the present-day stuff is featured in both the trailer and the logline, making us keenly aware that there’s more going on than just the period piece.

Knowing this, we the viewers keep waiting for the modern portion to arrive, but rather than intercutting it as parallel action, the film spends a sluggish 40 minutes on the plantation before jumping to the present. This shift should have happened 20 minutes into the film to hook us into the premise. By the time we double back, it’s too late.

This is more a fundamental flaw in the script than a problem with the editing, although there are large stretches where shots hold too long, often in slow-motion. Horror viewers are used to yelling at the screen at characters’ foolish actions, but here we’re yelling for them to hurry up as they take way too long to flee dangerous situations.

Eventually, we get a giant twist — the kind of whopper that made M. Night Shyamalan famous — but by then, we’re already frustrated with the experience. Critics can argue that the gimmick has been done before, but it still could have worked in a new social context if the pacing was right. Can we get a tightened director’s cut for Halloween?

Until then, you’ll just have to experience the twist for yourself. To reveal any more would be criminal, but I have a hunch that you’ll appreciate the concept more than the rollout. This Lady Antebellum gets no Lady A grade; it’s more of a Lady C for creativity that could have been so much better with more focus and more disciplined storytelling.

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