Consistent with the best social thrillers, Antebellum is so terrifying because it seems so plausible.
The impressive feature film debut by music video directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz (Jay-Z; Khalid) starts on a plantation during the Civil War, featuring the familiar dynamic between oppressive white overseers and Black slaves who are forced to pick cotton and aren’t allowed to speak without permission.
Similar to 12 Years a Slave, what separates this material from uninspired depictions like that of, say, Harriet is a visual and technical acumen, which the writers/directors showcase from the film’s opening frame. The long, complex Steadicam shot confidently tracks through the sprawling, pristine Confederate property, establishing the setting and the atrocities that take place within it via one magnificent yet horrible stretch — a stunning juxtaposition of human brutality and natural beauty that persists throughout the film.
Further separating Antebellum from its peers, however, is the inescapable sense that something isn’t quite right — beyond the basic awfulness of people owning people. The manner with which new arrival Julia (Kiersey Clemons, Hearts Beat Loud) speaks to fellow captive Eden (Janelle Monáe) is too modern for the 1860s, and authentic as the period dress and buildings appear, it also seems as if everyone might be playing dress-up.
The possibility of the situation being a sadistic twist on the social-experiment compound in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village becomes more plausible when Eden wakes from this apparent nightmare in contemporary Washington, D.C., where she is acclaimed author Veronica Henley — married with a loving husband and an adorable daughter.
This brilliant structure of jumping to the present after an extended stay in wherever it is that Eden and Julia reside keeps suspense high and our guessing rampant regarding precisely what’s happening. Drawing on such varied (yet connected) influences as “The Prisoner” and Get Out, Bush and Renz forge their own cinematic path by tapping into the fears inherent in current elevated race tensions and an increasingly divided nation, gradually revealing whether the prison Veronica finds herself in is mental, physical or both.
Overall, Monáe proves a superb vessel for this exploration of creeping dread with her steady, commanding presence, though a handful of clunky line readings suggest she might not quite be ready for leading roles — but more likely point to the filmmakers having room to improve in the dialogue department.
Nevertheless, as the truth comes to light and wholly earned revenge is doled out, Antebellum makes good on its paranoia-inducing potential and joins the ranks of its fellow genre greats.
Available to rent starting Sept. 18 via Amazon Video, iTunes and other streaming services