by Steve Habrat
In early October, Alfonso Cuarón’s space drama Gravity was on everyone’s lips as a shoe-in at the upcoming Oscars. It was king of the box office throughout the month and it seemed impossible to meet someone who wasn’t raving about how great the film is. In the past few weeks, the hype has cooled around Gravity and has begun to heat up around director Steve McQueen’s sobering 12 Years a Slave, an unflinchingly graphic look at the horrors of slavery. Based on the autobiography of the same name, 12 Years a Slave tells the devastating story of Solomon Northup, a free black man who was ripped from his family and sold into slavery. Impeccably acted from a cast of A-list talent and featuring some of the most handsome cinematography I’ve seen all year, 12 Years a Slave lives up to its reputation as being an emotional wrecking ball that shatters your heart. McQueen allows his camera to highlight the raw emotional anguish of his characters, but its also his refusal to pull the camera away through some of the more violent images that really brings the audience to their knees. The end results are unforgettable, guaranteed to haunt you for the rest of your days.
12 Years a Slave tells the story of Solomon Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man living with his wife and two children in Saratoga Springs, New York. He makes a good living as a prominent musician and he stands as a well-respected member of the community. One day, while out on a stroll, Solomon is approached by two men, Brown (played by Scoot McNairy) and Hamilton (played by Taran Killam), who claim to be traveling artists looking to employ Solomon as one of their musicians. Solomon graciously accepts their offer over dinner and drinks, but the next day, Solomon wakes up in a dank cell with chains around his wrists. After enduring a savage beating, Solomon is told that he is being transported to New Orleans to be sold into slavery, despite his insistence that he is a free man. Upon his arrival in New Orleans, Solomon is sold to William Ford (played by Benedict Cumberbatch), a kindly plantation owner who is receptive to Solomon’s ideas and even gives him a violin after learning he is a muscian. After a nasty confrontation with Ford’s overseer John Tibeats (played by Paul Dano), Ford is forced to sell Solomon to Edwin Epps (played by Michael Fassbender), a brutal plantation owner who enjoys relentlessly tormenting his slaves. Fearing for his safety, Solomon begins plotting a way to get away from Epps and to be reunited with his family.
Last year, Quentin Tarantino delved into the topic of slavery with his grindhouse revenge tale Django Unchained, a film that was accused of allowing one of the darkest chapters in American history to morph into a blood-splattered cartoon. Despite the attacks, I still thought that Django Unchained struck a chord with some of its material and it really sent a chill with the way it presented the seething racism of the time (It also topped my list of the best of 2012). While it’s undeniable that Tarantino padded portions of his film with dark humor and winking nods to obscure spaghetti westerns, McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave never even considers softening on the viewer. He keeps his camera fixed on the weary faces of those forced to labor away in the hot sun, allowing the anguished cries of a woman separated from her two young children to slice our soul, and the souring hope in Solomon’s eyes etch itself into our brains for the rest of our days. When he pauses to show us the overkill brutality of a lashing, there is no eruption of candlewax blood that calls attention to the fact that you’re just watching a slice of escapism. It’s a bit too realistic, especially when the cries of pain jolt you in your seat. McQueen is careful not to exploit the graphic violence, refusing to give long glimpses of slashed skin or puffs of blood. He drives its impact through constantly allowing us to see the faces of those who are enduring the beating—something that is sure to cause certain audience members to break down in tears.
Further securing 12 Years a Slave’s place in cinematic history is the A-list talent, especially the barbaric Fassbender and the crushed Ejiofor. A good majority of Ejiofor’s performance is in his wide eyes as he constantly stares just past the camera or down at the dirt under his feet, attempting to make sense of his current situation. It seems like he is always holding back tears and reassuring himself that he will not bow to the cruel overseers that patrol around with guns and whips. His passion sucks the air out of the theater as he is beaten down in the jail cell, told repeatedly that he is bluffing about being a free man and that he is simply a runaway from Georgia. We feel his desperation, fear, confusion, and anger as he pleas to be unlocked from the chains that imprison him. On the plantations, its unbearable to see him forced into submission, the only bright spots coming when the impressed Ford realizes the potential in him. A sickening dread takes over in the second half of the film when he is sold to Fassbender’s Epps, an abusive monster that enjoys waking his slaves in the night, dragging them up to the main house, and forcing them to dance for his amusement. He never passes up the chance to humiliate them; giggling at their trembling anxiety while he weighs the amount of cotton they picked for him that day. He’s also consistently at odds with his lust for the frail slave girl Patsey (played by Lupita Nyong’o), who he awakens in the middle of the night to have his way with, only to give way to instant disgust in himself. You won’t believe your eyes as he drools down on her, choking and slapping the poor girl for no reason at all.
As far as the secondary performers are concerned, Cumberbatch’s Ford is a gentle individual who hasn’t blinded himself to the fractured humanity in the men and women before him. Paul Dano’s John Tibeats is a stringy racist who forces the new slaves to clap their hands while he cheerily sings a menacing song about a runaway slave being caught and severely punished. Paul Giamatti shows up briefly as Theophilus Freeman, the man in charge of selling these petrified souls to leering plantation owners who act as though they are purchasing livestock rather than a human being. Brad Pitt gives a small but pivotal performance as Samuel Bass, a Canadian who is sympathetic to the cowering individuals aiding him in his construction. Scoot McNairy and Taran Killam will earn your disgust as Brown and Hamilton, the two men responsible for kidnapping Solomon and selling him into a world of constant suffering. Nyong’o is fantastic as Patsey, Epps’ favored slave who is loathed by his wife, Mary. Sarah Paulson brings Mary Epps to life with plenty of terrifying gusto. Don’t be fooled by her glimmers of kindness, as cruelty is always close behind it.
As far as some of the technical aspects are concerned, the cinematography from Sean Bobbitt offers us some natural beauty in between some of the more disquieting moments of the film. Also worthy of mention is the score from Hans Zimmer, who trades in the pounding drums of The Dark Knight Rises and Man of Steel for a much more intimate score that captures the film’s wounded spirit. In the film’s darker sequences, the tranquility is traded for wailing strings that will make the hair on your arms stand up. One complaint I have with the film is that I would have liked to have seen just a little bit more of Solomon’s life before he was sentenced to the fields. We get a handful of flashbacks that get the job done, but considering the length of the film, I was left wanting just a bit more than I got. Overall, McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is a searing experience that is elegantly shot, sharply written, courageously realistic, and superbly acted by all involved. This is an emotionally taxing and startlingly powerful film that sends you away at a loss for words. I find it difficult to believe that there will be another film this year that challenges its status as the best of 2013.