Tuesday, February 18, 2014

McQueen Delivers With the Harrowing "12 Years A Slave"

12 Years A Slave has a number of squirm-inducing long takes.
Just a year after Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (reviewed here), director Steve McQueen has brought another slavery tale to mainstream America, but his 12 Years A Slave proves a far more unsettling experience.

Whereas Django Unchained had all sorts of accouterments that made its brutality palpable for viewers – clever dialogue, irreverent humor and, importantly, the revenge element – 12 Years A Slave is an unflinching horror story. It is a serious movie about a serious topic, and in depicting slave conditions of the mid 1800s, it offers no moments of levity to break up the ugliness.

Based on the autobiographical account of Solomon Northup, 12 Years A Slave tells the story of how a free, educated black man was kidnapped and sold into slavery. Northup languished on several southern plantations for 12 years before finally coming across a Canadian carpenter willing to send word to his family and friends up north. After being freed, he became a major voice for the abolitionist cause and joined the Underground Railroad before ultimately disappearing a decade later under mysterious circumstances midway through the Civil War.

Knowing all of that doesn’t spoil the movie since it basically gives away the resolution in the title. The film is much more concerned with communicating the slavery experience – the savagery of a broken and immoral system that shockingly and embarrassingly took root in our country. McQueen doesn’t shy away from the inherent inhumanity of the story, and he purposefully holds certain shots for unbearably long amounts of time.

Two whippings are depicted in one-shot long takes and a scene in which Solomon is left hanging by a noose, struggling on tiptoes to stay alive is made all-the-more uncomfortable by contrasting his squirming for survival against the everyday farm work happening around him. Meanwhile, another scene in which slaves are displayed naked for purposes of sale is particularly unnerving given just how blasé the customers seem as they roam around an open house perusing potential product.

The cast is uniformly excellent, as one might expect given the three acting nominations the film landed from the Academy. Chiwetel Ejiofor is a gifted actor who probably hasn’t gotten the opportunities he deserves because he’s something like the eighth or ninth middle-aged black guy vying for roles in Hollywood, but he owns the screen here, using his wonderfully expressive face to communicate an array of emotions from confusion to desperation to relief.
Prepare for some powerhouse acting.
Meanwhile, McQueen regular Michael Fassbender gives a terrifying portrayal as Edwin Epps, an unhinged slave owner who uses select bible passages to justify his unbridled mistreatment of slaves. Both Ejiofor and Fassbender are worthy of any recognition that comes their way and the two of them share a quiet and intense sequence by lamp light that is one my favorite individual scenes from a 2013 film.

Despite their greatness, most of the acting accolades for the film have been funneled toward Lupita Nyong’o. She plays Patsey, a slave with an unparalleled ability to pick cotton who becomes the unfortunate focus of Epps’ affections, leading to a great deal of abuse from his jealous wife (Sarah Paulson as an evil Lady MacBeth type). I wouldn’t normally have expected Nyong’o to get such awards traction, but it’s a relatively weak field and she gives a solid performance, so I have no qualms about her taking home as many trophies as possible.

The rest of the cast is populated by a number of well-known actors, which can, at times, become a bit of a distraction. Paul Dano and Benedict Cumberbatch are given enough to do that they blend in seamlessly, but Alfre Woodard and Paul Giamatti call undue attention to themselves despite delivering fine performances.

Worst of all is the casting of Brad Pitt as the Canadian who orchestrated Solomon’s freedom. Pitt’s a producer on the film and he deserves a lot of credit for its existence, but he’s too big a star to show up in a spot like this. The role is a bit problematic anyway since the character is sort of a deus ex machina, but considering Pitt’s producer status, his presence adds a seemingly self-aggrandizing element. There’s nothing wrong with his performance, but it does pull the viewer out of the narrative once Brad Pitt shows up to punch slavery in the mouth.

That’s a minor blight, but the film does have some other flaws. For instance, the passage of time is poorly delineated and the key relationship between Patsey and Solomon is underdeveloped. However, none of that takes away from the achievement that is 12 Years A Slave. This is a great piece of film-making filled with a number of harrowing sequences and exceptional work in front of and behind the camera. It's not the best film of 2013, but it's pretty damn close to the top of the list. A