Editor’s note: Our review of 12 Years a Slave originally ran during this year’s TIFF, but we’re re-posting it as the film opens today in theatrical release.
In certain circles, the excellence of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave has just been assumed for months now – after all, how could a film that features such a talented cast, a gifted director, and a dramatically ripe true life tale not be a masterpiece? It’s a dangerous business, the kind of prognostication and hype that can exist before even one frame of a film is shot, but McQueen’s latest is the rare bird that lives up to its hype (and then some).
A freeman in upstate New York in the pre-Civil War era, Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and his family live an exceedingly regular kind of life – they have jobs, their own home, plenty of friends (both black and white) – and while the looming specter of slavery is occasionally present, it’s not something that appears to impact Solomon’s individual sense of freedom on a daily basis. Which is, of course, one of the things that make his eventual enslavement so horrifying to him (and the audience). Tricked into journeying down to Washington, D.C. to play the violin for a pair of glorified circus tramps (Taran Killam and Scoot McNairy, both unsettling in totally strange ways), Solomon is drugged and sold into slavery – he literally wakes up one morning in shackles.
What follows is a journey of some twelve years (well, obviously), tracing Solomon’s (now known by his slave name, Platt) travels from plantation to plantation, owner to owner. Consistently broken down, both physically and emotionally, Solomon’s quest to hold on to his humanity (and his attempts to return to a living world, not just a surviving one) is a very moving one, even as it’s also intensely upsetting.
Some of the most disturbing horrors in the film (if you don’t have the stomach for very personal violence, prep your eyelids now) are delivered in a relentlessly unflinching manner, with the camera lingering over shots long after they’ve already done their gruesome work. And yet, even in moments of extreme pain, the craftsmanship of McQueen and director of photography Sean Bobbitt’s composition is staggering (a standout scene involves, of all things, a hanging, and even in its horror, it’s somehow also just gorgeous).
12 Years a Slave is also a film that hinges on performance, and McQueen’s stacked cast delivers in spades. As Solomon, Ejiofor continually disappears inside his role, and his performance is appropriately restrained and expertly crafted. It’s a monster of a performance, and he pulls it off with seeming ease. Co-starring as evil plantation owner Edwin Epps, Michael Fassbender handily explores new levels of skin-crawling creepiness. Serving as the human embodiment of both extreme evil and the institution that keeps Solomon enslaved, Fassbender does outstanding work here, even if audiences won’t want to even look at him for most of his screen time (he’s really that despicable). The real breakout of 12 Years a Slave, however is newcomer Lupita Nyong’o, who stuns as Patsey, a fellow slave on Epps’ farm who is a special favorite of her evil owner. A steadily rising performance, it is Patsey who will break your heart (over and over again).
Cinephiles familiar with McQueen’s previous films will not be surprised with the tones and themes of 12 Years a Slave, but his consistency is still worth marveling at, especially when he’s continually confronted with such heavy material. Perhaps the greatest triumph of 12 Years a Slave is that it never allows itself to dip into the sentimental or the maudlin – this is as plain-faced a film about slavery could possibly be, and the effect of its evenness is, oddly enough, more emotion.
The Upside: Excellent performances (especially from Ejiofor, Fassbender, and newcomer Nyong’o), beautifully shot, neatly scripted, surprisingly unsentimental and yet still intensely moving.
The Downside: Plainly speaking, some people will balk at the violence and subject matter here – but that’s the entire point of the film.
On the Side: 12 Years a Slave is the first McQueen-directed film (shorts and features!) that doesn’t feature a one word title.