Directed by: Steve McQueen Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong'o, Michael Fassbender, Sarah Paulson, Paul Dano, Brad Pitt Running Time: 2 hr 13 mins Rating: R Release Date: Oct 18, 2013 (Chicago)
PLOT: Freed man Solomon Northup (Ejiofor) is kidnapped and forced back into slavery for twelve years.
WHO'S IT FOR? All fans of great film ready to face history.
12 Years a Slave ends with a character speaking what must be Steve McQueen's official motto, considering his previous Shame, and now his followup about American slavery: "There is nothing to forgive." Directors often fit material to their own authorship, but here are events that specifically require McQueen's attitude and vision, making for a rare, exhilarating match. Such a pairing makes for voraciousness as dark and rich as American historical films can be, observing dehumanization in economy and religion this side of Paul Thomas Anderson's magnificent There Will Be Blood.
In a film that returns facial expressions to human lives lost in history, Ejiofor provides McQueen's film his finest performance, a great supporting actor finally placed into a great lead role. Continuously a strong actor throughout his work despite however slim amount of lines, here he plays a specimen of fortitude, taking to heart his first-act declaration that, "I don't want to survive, I want to live." Ejiofor comes with no fanfare in a performance that shows a restored man being broken down by injustice. In a season of survivors, from Bullock to Hanks to Redford, he emerges the strongest.
Ejiofor shares numerous chapters with staggering newcomer Lupita Nyong'o's Patsey, a slave with cotton-picking skills and the affections of Fassbender's Epps, but with no human rights to declare. While Ejiofor depicts a nightmare of stolen status, Nyong'o unveils a much larger number who have no claim to the previous comforts of freedom; she is the background to Solomon's foreground.
Save for a couple bumps (vitalizing producer/actor Brad Pitt is perhaps too much of a sermon, and Taran Killam can't mask his line-reading illiteracy), McQueen's film is enriched by its shifting cast list, not cheapened. Characters who are seen for no more than ten minutes are imbued with a richness that could fill their own film; thankfully they are contained into this expansive story as examples of one another. From Paul Dano's screeching, emasculated power-tripper to Benedict Cumberbatch's religious business man owner, 12 Years a Slave shows various attitudes and expanses of inhumanity for those in agreement that slave ownership is an economic right. Coming with special fury is a seething and unblinking Michael Fassbender, playing opposite a brutal Sarah Paulson, as married religious owners who c0nsider slave ownership an enterprise justified by Scripture.
12 Years a Slave receives jolts from thunder man Hans Zimmer, packing a modernist classical score that eschews explosive brass for ruthless low-note string rakes. It variates between such gnashes and ominous tones, but uses a now-tedious greatest hit Zimmer melody as its main dramatic motif - recognizable to the millions who saw Inception, and to the hundreds of thousands aware of a piece within that film called "Time." And also, anyone who saw the end of Captain Phillips.
Reflecting on horrors repressed in American history that Tarantino previously played footsie with in Django Unchained, the comparisons between that film and McQueen's are inevitable. However, in the scope of 12 Years a Slave, Django Unchained is now but another example of time trying to Candie coat these chapters of American history, and to avoid what McQueen now aggressively presents. In such comparison, the violence in 12 Years a Slave is sobering, yet never once offers immunization. With not one frame interested in the mythology of this Holocaust, McQueen certainly provides no exhale of gratuitous revenge.
Arriving less than a year after Django Unchained brought slavery back into the multiplex, 12 Years a Slave stands as the necessary film for our contemporary understandings of past atrocities. In doing so, McQueen does not lighten on human nature when it horrendously fails itself, like with his focus of Shame's modern New York plagued with sin. McQueen's scope has certainly widened from that of Shame's dark intimacy, and his vision of human imperfection at its most naked expands without bounds across the title years of Solomon's second slavery. In his idea of history, McQueen provides with his ominous artistic strokes what text in history books cannot - a vital sense of atmosphere.
As with Shame, McQueen maintains a dedication to IcyHot imagery contrasting nature's pulchritude (bright green fields, tri-colored southern sunsets) with the hellish sadism that humans hath wrought on such a promising land. McQueen captures his actors in performance art that is purely cinematic; gasping minute-long shots of hushed extreme internal or external pain, shown with bare close-ups earning an emotional claustrophobia that no stage or TV set could justify. He exemplifies this aching actualization of chaos with his extended takes with unexpected placement, forcing the environment to situate starkly as life resumes within the film outside of the necessities made by plot. Without spoiling: one slave experiences a deathly nightmare, while life must continue on, and without help in others. The visual continues for about a minute; one can only imagine how much longer McQueen wishes this shot could be.
FINAL SCORE: 9/10