Thursday, November 14, 2013

12 Years a Slave Review: A Masterpiece of Historical Horrors

By Andrew Braid

Directed by Steve McQueen
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Lupita Nyong'o, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt
(Limited) Release Date: October 18, 2013
(Wide) Release Date: November 8, 2013 (still expanding)

I'm really not sure where to start for this one...
It's not really about slavery being a difficult, hugely uncomfortable topic to discuss (which it undoubtedly is), or about the brutal, unflinching, pull-no-punches approach by director Steve McQueen (whose first two films, Hunger and Shame, weren't exactly easy sits either). Rather it's because I'm frankly still so blown away, so overwhelmed by the film that I don't know how to (or if I even can) write about it in a way that does it true justice. Between this and Gravity, choosing the best film of the year isn't going to be easy.
12 Years a Slave is an adaptation of the 1853 autobiography by Solomon Northup, a free black man and skilled violinist in pre-Civil War America living a comfortable life with his wife and two children in Saratoga Springs, New York. His life is stripped away from him in a flash when two shady businessmen wine and dine him under pretense of a big performance opportunity, only to drug him, chain him and sell him into slavery. Through the eyes of Solomon (now given the slave name Platt), we follow his 12 year ordeal in a life of working on plantations, first to the seemingly kind William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), and then to the monstrously abusive and cruel Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). Over the course of his incredible, harrowing story, Solomon must learn to hide his intelligence and the truth about his background, to work and keep his head down if he wants to stay alive, all while seeking any chance he can find to write and send the one letter it will take to prove who he is and regain his freedom.
"I don't want to survive. I want to live."

Director Steve McQueen brings 1840s America to life with stunning detail and arresting visual composition. McQueen shoots several scenes in long, unbroken takes, a stylistic trademark already established in his previous films yet used to tremendous effect here. The most brutal scenes of cruelty are lingered upon long enough to become almost unbearable, but never become exploitative or excessive in the manner of something like The Passion of the Christ. They are simply depicting a part of the unjust world that existed, one of many dehumanizing treatments of people being reduced to the status of cattle, animals and toys for sadistic impulses. Cruelty was encouraged, even though it was frequently inefficient, as best embodied by Fassbender's Edwin Epps, a volatile monster of man whose signs of underlying humanity and desires make him all the more frighteningly believable. Cumberbatch's Ford, by contrast, fancies himself a good, well-meaning man, with even some consideration of compassion, but still proves to be just another slave owner, and no number of small courtesies can ever obscure that fact that he still propagates such an abhorrent practice.
The cast throughout is exceptional, with strong smaller supporting turns from Brad Pitt (as a Canadian traveler who opposes slavery), Sarah Paulson (Epps' equally cruel, steely-faced wife) and  Paul Dano (perfectly cast as a despicably obnoxious slave overseer- his beating at the hands of Solomon provides one of the few mid-film cheer-worthy moments). Particularly notable among the supporting cast are the aforementioned Fassbender, as well as Hollywood newcomer Lupita Nyong'o as Patsey, another slave who becomes an object of Epps' desire, much to the barely-contained contempt of his wife. But as incredible as the ensemble cast may be, they never overshadow the film's lead, and honestly how could they? Chiwetel Ejiofor, often an under-appreciated actor, delivers a truly masterful, nuanced performance that on its own is plenty good reason to be seeing this film. Whether he breaks down into impassioned anger or wordlessly expresses quiet fear and desperation, he fully embodies the emotional beats big and small with equal skill. One several-minute unbroken shot that holds exclusively on Solomon's face during a makeshift funeral proceeding is a master class in dramatic art.
A frighteningly tense sequence between Ejiofor and Fassbender, who along with relative newcomer Lupita Nyong'o deliver the biggest standout performances among an already exceptional cast.

12 Years a Slave is a gut punch of a film, one that transports you into a world of horrifying cruelty with shocking, chilling effectiveness (many have called it the most accurate depiction of American slavery ever put to film, and I find myself hard-pressed to dispute that). But the film wisely makes itself about the man at its core, one of the very few who managed to find escape, and not all about slavery itself. When Solomon finds himself reunited with his family, it is a faint silver lining amid a sea of suffering and prejudice that swallows his country whole. Yet we must take what comfort we can in such a small glimmer, for how else can we gain hope- hope to give us drive, hope to learn from and overcome the demons past and present?

Final Score: 10/10
+ A brutally honest, unrelenting depiction of the horrors of slavery
+ Gripping and overwhelmingly powerful, likely to provoke tears by its end
+ Masterfully directed
+ Incredible performances from the entire cast
+ Chiwetel Ejiofor has pretty much already won Best Actor this year
- Unsettling subject matter that may not be for every-
You know what? No. I'm not going to say that. It doesn't matter what excuse you may bring up, be it the violence, the uncomfortable subject matter, some inexplicable distaste for anything good, the truth is you NEED to see this movie. It is too important, too monumental, and most importantly just too phenomenal a piece of cinema to pass up the chance to see. There's going to be a massive wave of Oscar buzz coming for this film in just a mater of time, but you really shouldn't need that to tell you how it's a truly amazing film. Sure, you could wait until the Blu-Ray or download copy comes out, but it is without a doubt best appreciated and experienced on a big screen in the theater. I implore anyone and everyone to go see 12 Years a Slave, no matter what your personal tastes may be, because even if you don't like it, you sure as hell won't forget about it later. This, good readers, is a film that sticks with you long after experiencing it.