Monday, October 21, 2013

12 Years a Slave (***1/2)

Directed by Steve McQueen


In a post Django Unchained movie climate, a film like 12 Years a Slave might get swallowed. Both films put almost Mel Gibson-like focus on the brutality of American slavery, soaking the audience in the horrors and the blood of the darkest part of American history. Django did it with flair, a pop picture using Western homage to contrast the grotesque evil shown on the screen - that movie only felt about ten percent sincere. 12 Years a Slave is a full hundred. It sees nothing catchy or funny about the story of Solomon Northup, a free black man living in New York during antebellum America who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the dastardly South. It's bones are rooted in complete seriousness. 12 Years is unflinching, rough to the touch and stark in its emotional portrayal of such a harrowing story. With incredible performances from his main cast members, Steve McQueen crafts a story that manages to side-swipe the sentimentality of previous slave tales like Roots while still managing to capture the helpless horror of its setting.

This is the third film from Steve McQueen, after Hunger and Shame. With each sequential film, he's gotten further from his experimental, visual artist past and has now fully embraced the standard narrative template, with this film anyway. 12 Years a Slave has the kind of three-act hero's journey that Robert McKee would have really loved, but he's able to prove that even though he's working with a tighter script (penned by John Ridley), it doesn't mean that he's going to eschew his visual expertise. He is incredibly aware of the power of a single image, and he uses long takes not to show off as a cinematic virtuoso (though he can do that too), but to forever burn that image into your mind. McQueen is neither white, nor American, so the early claims that 12 Years is another in a line of American white guilt pictures is pretty funny if not flat-out wrong, but that accusation becomes even more erroneous once you've actually seen the film. McQueen's framing of the events and his impeccable orchestration of the brilliant performances from Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender have you leaving the theater with few thoughts outside of just how powerful the cinematic experience you just witnessed is.

Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup, a successful violinist living in Saratoga, New York with his wife and two children. He's respected by the entire town for his playing ability, but when his wife takes a trip with the children, Solomon takes a short job with two business men working for the circus. The men end up getting Northup highly inebriated before cashing in and selling him as a runaway slave named Platt. Ejiofor is a veteran English actor who's been in and out of movies for over a decade, but outside of 2002's Dirty Pretty Things and 2005's Kinky Boots, he's rarely been given a film role as opportunistic as the one that Steve McQueen gives him here. It's a performance that's as tormented and physical as they come, putting Ejiofor through the ringer as Solomon is pulled from his family, his life and is put face-to-face with the cold reality of American slavery, a reality he did good to ignore as a free man up North. The glimmer of freedom always shines painfully in Solomon's eyes, even as he's beaten out of even acknowledging his real name and his privileged past.

It's the kind of role that should finally make Ejiofor a star, and its the kind of performance that all but guarantees it. I'd venture to guess that by the end of Oscar season, we'll all have a better handle on how to actually pronounce his name. Surrounding him is a bevy of star power in supporting roles, including Paul Giamatti as a slimy businessman omonously named Freeman. Freeman is the man that Solomon's kidnappers sell him to. He later flips Solomon to a landowner named Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), along with a woman whom he separates from her children. Life on Ford's plantation is good enough. Ford indulges Solomon's musical abilities and even takes his advice per carpentry over that of his hired contractor, the brutal Tibeats (Paul Dano). Tibeats doesn't take well to be shown up by a slave, giving Solomon his first taste of the spiteful hate that Southern plantation whites can showcase. Tibeats' threats toward Solomon become so hostile indeed that life on the Ford plantation becomes too dangerous, and he is moved to the plantation of Edwin Epps (Fassbender).

It's nearly an hour until Fassbender makes his first appearance in the film, but he makes his presence almost instantly. The evil white slave owner is a role that's as hackneyed in American cinema as the black slave is. But Fassbender's meditative interpretation of hatefulness is so immersive and troubling. Fassbender's intensity rivals that of Daniel Day-Lewis, but he doesn't have Day-Lewis' need to make acting look so hard. He so easily fades into tormented characters that it almost makes you fearful for his mental state. Contrasting Fassbender's Pacino-level bravura, Sara Paulson plays Mistress Epps, Edwin's extra icy companion of which the official relationship is never made completely clear. Her cruelty matches Edwin's, even if the passion doesn't come close and the main target of her scorn is Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o - you don't know her now, but you will soon), an expert cotton picker and particular favorite of Edwin's. Patsey usually surpasses her nearest picker by hundreds of pounds per day, and this wins her the lecherous glances from Edwin and the scorn of his mistress.

The introduction of Edwin and Patsey in the film's second half creates an entirely different dynamic. This portion of the film isn't totally isolated to the actions of Solomon, while he becomes a spectator to the horrific treatment of Epps' slaves, particularly Patsey. Nyong'o's performance is a powerhouse, a pouty-faced angel trapped in a never-ending Hell ruled by a man who will soon enough rape her as he will whip her. Patsey is so filled with helpless doom, brimming with self-hatred at the behavior she's exhibited in order to survive, and what that behavior has afforded her. This is a running theme throughout the film: the price of survival. Solomon is fully aware of this price because he knows about life outside of slavery and is able to fathom what life would be like as a Master Ford or possibly even a Master Epps. After over a decade in captivity, he begins to understand Patsey's pleading to just end it all and try your chances in the afterlife.

The film was produced by Brad Pitt's production company, which I guess means that Pitt is obligated to have a small role in the film, which he does near the very end. It's a fine enough performance, even if Pitt - an American playing a Canadian - does a worse job with the accent than Fassbender and Cumberbatch - an Irishman and a Englishman playing two American Southerners - and Pitt's starpower can't help but give away his character's intentions as soon as he comes on the screen. The Pitt distraction comes late enough in the film that it doesn't really disrupt anything, by that point you want so badly to hear some good news about Solomon or Patsey that it doesn't really matter that it comes in the form of a guy who just months earlier was fighting a zombie avalanche in the exact same haircut. Amazingly enough, I couldn't help but wonder how much better Matthew McConaughey would've been in the role - a thought that would have never crossed my mind even one year ago. (And while I'm nitpicking, it was hard not to notice that Hans Zimmer's score was just a rehashing of his work on Inception. Work a little harder than that, Hans.)

Since its premiere at the Telluride Film Festival in August, 12 Years a Slave has gotten almost universal acclaim as one of the best movies of 2013 (including this controversial, over-enthusiastic piece from Vulture, which all but called the Best Picture race over). The race to claim what's in fact the best movie is always so hurried amongst some that it really sucks the fun out of, you know, actually watching the movies. This is what I do know: this film places Steve McQueen amongst the elite of contemporary filmmakers like Paul Thomas Anderson or Alfonso Cuaron, and his collaborations with Fassbender (all three of his features have starred the Irish actor) has the potential to rival the work of Scorsese and DeNiro or Hitchcock and Stewart. His latest film has been called the "Schindler's List of American slavery", which seems an utter misinterpretation but letting the comparison stand: McQueen does not hold Spielberg's complete mastery of audience anticipation, and 12 Years isn't nearly sentimental enough to attract the audience that Schindler did. I don't think it has to. I, for one, think its refreshing to see a young filmmaker making a prestige picture out of tune with what we're all expecting.

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