Director: Steve McQueen
Reviewed: 22 March 2014
jamesintexas rating-- ****
Solomon Northup's journey from the freedom of Saratoga Springs, NY to the degradation of slavery in 1841 Louisiana takes a Hitchcockian concept (the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time) and adapts it into a harrowing true American horror story. Solomon, a free man, found himself kidnapped and pressed into slavery, lost to his family and to the world that he knew. Director Steve McQueen masterfully constructs an enveloping, compressed tone and unforgettably naturalistic mis-en-scene, and in this film's narrowness and precision, he achieves something quite remarkable. 12 Years a Slave has a transcendent power in its performances, screenplay, and overall relentlessness. I have simply never seen a film like it.
Slavery poisons all involved in its depraved logic. There are swindlers who lie to Solomon to get him to travel to Washington D.C. for a purported traveling music show, and his trust makes him vulnerable. There are rapacious businessmen who examine slaves like animals at market, selling them to the highest bidder, swiftly separating families and forever destroying lives. There are ferocious overseers intent on squeezing backbreaking labor out of their property, reading to mete out violent responses to any perceived slight. There are masters of the planation, often times drunk with power and occasionally capable of mercy. McQueen zooms in on Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) at several moments of the film, moments that punctuate his own attempts to survive the most horrible of circumstances. These shots often focus on Ejiofor's face, conveying the pain and the turmoil of his experiences, and McQueen often lets the shot linger for thirty, forty-five, even sixty seconds. Moments like these naturally make an audience uncomfortable, desirous of a cut or release from the intensity, and McQueen has his form reflect his content and keeps us on the hook. Ejiofor is the heart of nearly every scene of this film, and this performance is his finest yet. Michael Fassbender's performance as malevolent slave owner Edwin Epps represents another dimension of that fine actor's capability: Epps is filled with self-loathing, drunken cruelty, and sordid justification for his actions, especially when called to account by Bass, a visiting laborer (Brad Pitt, in the only discordant moment of the film). Lupita Nyong'o infuses her performance as the imperiled Patsey with a haunted quality and an unnerving physicality. With very little screen time, Nyong'o makes a titanic impression.
In some ways, 12 Years a Slave is the anti-Django Unchained, last year's Oscar winning film about slavery and one man's journey to freedom. Where Tarantino infuses his film with modern touches, baroque dialogue, and explosive western-style justice, McQueen offers less bravado and more quiet work with his camera and the work going in the background of scenes. Tarantino gleefully shows the ruin of Candy Land and its oppressors, with Django riding off the victor (though he will undoubtedly be pursued). McQueen offers no catharsis or comeuppance for the guilty. He rarely zooms out to show a wider view of a scene, much less of history or the passage of time, as though we are trapped within the film, unanchored in time. But time does pass as the final scene reveals. He achieves a labyrinthine quality in this film, surprising and startling in moments by upending expectations.
Steve McQueen has made a film relevant to modern day scourge of human trafficking, calling to account those in both political and religious power, as well as completely annihilating any romanticism of this ugly, abhorrent epoch. An early shot in the film depicts a captive Solomon's outstretched hands confined by bars in a basement window, shadows hiding his face, as the camera zooms out into a crane shot to show the backdrop of the growing and yet unfinished U.S. Capitol building in Washington D.C. For our country's high-minded and noble ideals, there is an acknowledgment that needs to be given that much of what our country has was built on the backs and lives of those held in bondage. That is part of our country's legacy. Human cruelty knows no bounds as McQueen shows, and the struggle to survive and tell one's story can only help recover from but never fully undo the effects of such terrorism.