Review by Rich Cline | 3/5

dir-scr Gerard Bush, Christopher Renz
prd Raymond Mansfield, Sean McKittrick, Zev Foreman, Gerard Bush, Christopher Renz, Lezlie Wills
with Janelle Monae, Eric Lange, Jena Malone, Jack Huston, Kiersey Clemons, Gabourey Sidibe, Tongayi Chirisa, Marque Richardson, Robert Aramayo, Lily Cowles, London Boyce, TC Matherne
release US 18.Sep.20
20/US Lionsgate 1h46

malone huston sidibe

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With their feature debut, filmmakers Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz evoke atmospheric horror in the American South before the Civil War, then waver as they try to transpose this to today. Packed with striking visual flourishes, this is a harsh depiction of slavery, full of violent words and actions. And the story is told with surprising jumps and twists. But the overall metaphor is so on-the-nose that its impact is muted.
After an attempted escape, Eden (Monae) is cruelly branded by her master (Lange) and put back to work in the cotton fields by Jasper (Huston). So she's reluctant when pregnant new slave Julia (Clemons) asks her to help her escape. But this is only a nightmare: Eden is actually present-day author Veronica, writing about racism and living happily with her husband Nick (Richardson) and young daughter (Boyce). While away from home on a book tour, Veronica has a night out with her lively pals (Sidibe and Cowles), after which her life takes a mind-bending turn.
The film's jump to the present day about 40 minutes in is somewhat jarring, as the 19th century bigotry continues to echo along with hints that nothing is quite what it seems. Indeed, the script is playing with audience expectations, while Pedro Luque Briozzo's camerawork inventively leads the eye, gliding people into the frame while keeping others unseen. Then things properly cut loose in the final half hour, as the plot's secrets begin to be revealed, leading to even more nasty violence and some unnervingly well-staged fight sequences.

Monae skilfully bridges her dualistic role, connecting the observant, terrified Eden with the confident activist Veronica. It's a demanding performance as she involves the audience in an outrageous odyssey, even if she's too sketchy to be properly sympathetic. Side characters are also nicely played, including newcomer Chirisa as a fellow slave, Malone as a fearsome plantation mistress and the superb Huston as the unapologetically vile Jasper. And Sidibe provides some welcome comical scene-stealing.

This is a movie on a mission, exploring the hidden racism that infuses American society. This isn't a subtle parable; themes are shouted loudly. But it's provocative enough to get us thinking as it touches on a series of recognisable current issues. The final sequence is particularly vivid as it tries to bridge the double-sided story using heightened emotion. The approach is indulgent and rather muddled, but the movie is freaky enough to generate some suspense, even if it's more chilling than terrifying.

cert 15 themes, language, violence 18.Sep.20

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