It feels a bit like the broader movie world is about to learn who Steve McQueen is. After they have the same chuckle over his name most hardcore prestige fans had several years ago, they’ll marvel at his abilities as a dramatic filmmaker. With 12 Years a Slave, he’s partnered once again with Michael Fassbender, dragging the actor through an arduous role to come out clean on the other side. He’s also got Chiwetel Ejiofor bringing staunch prowess to the lead role of a free Northerner named Solomon Northrup who is captured and sold into slavery.
In the early reviews from Telluride, critics are standing outside Ejiofor’s house with a sign that says, “To me you are perfect.”
Greatly encouraging in the same vein as the early Gravity responses from Venice, this film looks poised to punch awards season in the gut and plant an accomplished yet still budding auteur into more mainstream ground. Here’s what people are saying:
William Goss, Film.com
“Slave might be the most grimly accurate depiction of American slavery committed to film, which in turn threatens to render monotonous countless inhumane offenses as the story stretches into its third hour. It’s not that McQueen and writer John Ridley (working from Northup’s own memoir) could help it, assuming they even wanted to. The subject matter doesn’t exactly invite comic relief, while cutting away to Solomon’s surely concerned family up north would have rung false and detracted from such an aptly oppressive experience.
McQueen nonetheless manages to reinvigorate these cruelties on each occasion, whether cutting between the sounds of music and the sights of agony during scenes of mandatory celebration or forced separation, or subtly incorporating his trademark long take during an extended whipping scene as the potential for maximum emotional and physical anguish aligns with a harsh sense of inevitability. For the most part, these high emotions are matched well by Hans Zimmer’s score, although the odd flair of “Inception”-like bombast deflates one particularly tense encounter early on.”
Kris Tapley, HitFix
Eric Kohn, IndieWire
“More than a powerful elegy, 12 Years a Slave is a mesmerizing triumph of art and polemics: McQueen turns a topic rendered distant by history into an experience that, short of living through the terrible era it depicts, makes you feel as if you’ve been there.”
Anne Thompson, Thompson on Hollywood
Chris Willman, The Playlist
“A parade of character actors famous for playing sleazeballs get to mistreat Solomon, starting with Paul Giamatti, and including Paul Dano as an imbecile sub-“master” who can’t stand the thought that there might be an educated slave in the midst. Transfers in ownership ensure that Solomon’s lot goes from bad to worse to worst, as he finally ends up in the hands of notorious “slave-breaker” Edwin Epps (Fassbender). Epps isn’t even the most villainous of the many detestable white people in the movie: that would be his jealous and bloodthirsty wife, played by Sarah Paulson, who makes Lady MacBeth look like Olive Oyl.”
Eugene Kovikov, Film Blather
“12 Years a Slave is a more conventional effort than Hunger or Shame, but it’s every bit as searing and tough-minded, and hardly less challenging. McQueen has edged toward the mainstream without surrendering what made him interesting, which is great to see.”
Peter Debruge, Variety
“When it comes time to bestow awards, voters tend to prefer characters who suffer to those who abuse, and yet, this actorly transformation may be Fassbender’s most courageous yet, tapping into a place of righteous superiority that reminds just how scary such racism can be. In many respects, 12 Years a Slave works like a horror movie, beginning with a Saw-style abduction and proceeding through subsequent circles of hell, the tension amplified by a score that blends chain-gang clanging with those same foghorn blasts Hans Zimmer used in Inception. As captured by cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, however, a rare beauty suffuses even the most infernal situations.
This radiant aesthetic, coupled with the rousing use of spiritual songs, provide a beacon of optimism amidst so much hate, once again proving cinema’s place as the ultimate human-rights medium. It’s a shame that such injustice was allowed to exist for so long — 12 years for Northrup and nearly 250 for those less fortunate — and an even bigger disgrace that it takes a British director to stare the issue in its face.”
Tom Shone, The Guardian
12 Years a Slave hits theaters October 18th.