‘Antebellum’ review: Janelle Monáe captivates in breathless horror flick

“Antebellum” is a bold move: It’s a horror movie about slavery that makes few weighty comments about it.

A purely entertaining, scary flick will infuriate the culturati who like their movies like they like their Atlantic articles: long and academic. However, despite some issues, this Janelle Monáe film is a breathless watch.

“Antebellum” bears a certain resemblance to this year’s “The Hunt,” which was about a group of gun-toting elites who killed “deplorables” for sport. I hated every minute of “The Hunt,” which had all the life and soul of a crowbar, but “Antebellum” corrects many of the former flick’s unfortunate flaws.

The performances, led by a captivating Monáe, are wholly committed, rather than smugly self-aware. Although the movie has pockets of lightness, it doesn’t make a shabby attempt at full-blown satire instead of drama. And, most importantly, the film doesn’t act smarter than it is.

(There will be spoilers aplenty, so stop reading if you can’t handle that.)

The movie starts with a tough sequence of a foiled slave escape from a southern plantation. There is death and agony, and the tortured screams are drowned out by newcomers Nate Wonder and Roman GianArthur’s memorably wicked score.

We then recede to deafening quiet as we meet the downcast Eden (Monáe), a woman who was instrumental in planning the coup, but whose life was spared by her otherwise barbaric, rapist owner. The leader of the place calls it a “reform plantation.” Huh, weird. Indeed, there is something off about the way everyone is speaking.

Monáe soon wakes up — with a gasp, as though she has just been through a nightmare — in a normal bed in a posh modern home. We learn her name is Veronica, and that she is a liberal TV pundit and popular author. She has a husband, a young daughter and pals around with a forthright TV marriage expert (Gabourey Sidibe).

After an off-putting video call with an offensive southern woman, we instantly know what’s really going on.

And therein lies the core problem of director-screenwriters Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz’s “Antebellum”: The audience is too far ahead of it for too much of the movie. “Get Out,” which shares a producer with this film, had a shocking twist and, even after that turn of events, the movie continued to unfurl in surprising ways. “Antebellum,” on the other hand, doesn’t keep us guessing, but instead uses a foreboding tone of dread to remain engrossing. Beyond the horrors of slavery, it isn’t that frightening. Fear junkies, this might not be your movie.

Most essential is the deep way in which we care about both of Monáe’s characters. In some ways, this film is more closely related to old-school “Don’t go in the bedroom!” horror flicks than sophisticated new ones, and the consistently tremendous actress’ drive and intensity keep us wishing Veronica wouldn’t arrive at her clear destination.

To be sure, “Antebellum” is not totally devoid of social commentary. There are subtly — and blatantly — racist remarks and actions that happen in its Deep South setting that help us understand why Veronica ends up where she does. But it’s also fun, plain-old popcorn horror, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

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