Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave without fail is definitively a landmark film. This film paints a portrait of human depravity and the evil that can consume individuals, how that evil manifests itself throughout the years, the overwhelming compassion that can overcome a human being, and it paints a portrait of one man who sacrifices the essence of his soul so that all his body can remain intact.
2013 is turning out to be the best year in cinema since 2007’s groundbreaking cinematic success and no film expands on this idea as absolutely as Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave.
Every once in a while –not as often as I’d prefer- I enter a movie theater and the second that the opening titles slide off the screen I’m so fully immersed it’s as if time has stopped completely. I don’t lean over to converse with my movie companion, I don’t scramble around for a snack or anxiously check my phone to see if I’ve missed a call and most importantly I don’t ever take my eyes off the screen. Typically, when a film accomplishes this, it’s because of the magnetism of spectacles: the vibrancy, bombastic nature of superhero films that capture the inner kid in me still.
It’s rare that a drama to this extensive gravitas can manage the same unadulterated attention.
It’s a tonally visceral film due to its unrelenting picture of the severity and strength of the human soul.
Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a New York State citizen who was kidnapped and made to work on a plantation in New Orleans in the 1800’s. McQueen’s film, co-written with John Ridley and based on Northup’s memoir, tells his story of how he survived the cruel nature of Master Epps (Michael Fassbender) and how he did everything in his might to return once again to life he once knew.
The acting is stellar. Chiwetel Ejiofor creates a thoroughly drawn individual in Solomon and as we watch him endure horrendous tribulations, we see his character slowly slips away, with a quiet defiance always lying behind the surface. There are too many scenes to name that showcase how his desperation and logic often clash and Ejiofor plays it with the utmost ferocity and vulnerability. The quiet moments allow us a look into his severed hope, the louder ones his anguish at being forced under the hand of another man, and ones with Lupita Nyong’o and Brad Pitt’s characters show his sensitivity. It’s one of the most fully figured characters I’ve seen and Ejiofor, always seemingly on the brink of his big break, deserves every and all accolades delivered to him.
The supporting actors are also all well cast, a cast that includes Brad Pitt, Sarah Paulson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano and Paul Giamatti. But there are two in particular that stand out amongst a group of highly capable performers: Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong’o. Fassbender plays cold rage with minute care and is at this stage a likely lock for a Best Supporting Actor nomination but it’s Nyong’o as Patsey, Master Epps favorite for praise and abuse, that is the true surprise of the film. A relative unknown before the film, she lights up the screen with her painfully realized character who breaks your heart every time she appears onscreen.
None of this would be possible if it wasn’t for McQueen who, three films into his career, is undoubtedly a force to be reckoned with. He’s unflinching in the way he tells his story, whether it be portraying a sex addict, a man on a prison hunger strike, or a man sold into slavery. He allows the ruthlessness of the actions of slave owners to take their time, to force the audience’s eyes from drifting away. We’re forced to witness the inhumane treatment of these individuals despite our gut reflex to close our eyes.
Above all else, this film is beautiful. McQueen and his director of photography Sean Bobbitt (whose also worked as DOP on The Place Beyond the Pines and Shame) have mastered how to frame a shot that allows the expanse of their locations to overflow the senses and to pull up tight to a characters face to cause discomfort: to see the sweat, the tears, the blood and the flinches that flow through the bodies of the characters or pull them taut. That undercut with a score by Hans Zimmer, which is refined yet orchestral creates a character out of the New Orleans location itself.
It’s a film about human nature: its immorality, its kindness, its fear and its astute will to live-to survive no matter what heinous crime committed against them. How Solomon forfeited his soul in return to keep his body and mind intact for that sliver of hope that managed to squeeze through that he may have the chance to return home. There is no forced sentimentality, no moments of reflection, only one pressing goal to the next obstacle and repeat.
This film manages to do everything a good movie should: it enlightens and it teaches, it makes us wring our hands with nerves, turn our face to pretend we’re not crying openly amidst a crowd, it makes us hope so exponentially for a character that we bodily react at every wrong turn and at every slight victory.
There’s nothing else quite like it, make sure to go and see it when it opens October 18th.