Director: Steve McQueen
Runtime: 133 minutes
When a movie has you doubting its quality for its first half hour, it tends to send up more than a few red flags. That was the experience I had with Steve McQueen's third feature film, 12 Years a Slave. All of the festival hype about this being a masterpiece didn't even seem remotely present. Yet over the course of its grueling duration, the movie has a way of getting under your skin long before you fully realize it. This is a film that rights itself so powerfully that it manages to meet, and possibly surpass, its overwhelming hype.
Arriving nearly a year after Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained, Slave is quick to position itself as a polar opposite. Tarantino's take on slavery was brutal, but so stylized that it quickly arrived at winking hyperbole. That tongue-in-cheek revisionism is nowhere to be found in McQueen's film, which sternly cements itself as one of the definitive cinematic portraits of the horrors of American slavery.
Yet for all of the brutality, emotional and physical, on display, 12 Years a Slave's approach is remarkably restrained. McQueen, working off of John Ridley's adaptation of the novel of the same title, has ample opportunity to bludgeon the viewer into numbing submission. As we follow Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free man captured and sold into the southern slavery machine, we are witness to unspeakable violence, as expected. But rather than reflect Northrup's own horror, the film spends most of its time depicting its atrocities with quiet detachment. Rarely has the concept of the banality of evil been so maturely transferred to the silver screen.
The effect is distancing at first, and it can make 12 Years a Slave difficult to fully engage with at times. There are moments made to elicit gasps of horror, but also any number of scenes presented so matter-of-factly that they appear determined to keep the viewer at arm's length. It's a strategy that could have proved damning in the long run. Instead, it all builds to a finale that packs what has to be the biggest emotional wallop of the year, and by quite a wide margin.
The academically rigorous treatment that takes up most of the runtime is, secretly, the key to the film's success. By refusing to indulge in exploitation and wallowing in awfulness, the story clips along, capturing evil as ordinarily as possible, as though it were just another part of the day. The intelligence with which Ridley treats his characters, coupled with McQueen's vision, allow the film to work as an accessibly arty drama, as well as an honest and unflinching portrait of one of the biggest travesties in American history.
And as the glue holding the story together, Mr. Ejiofor is tremendous, infusing Solomon with hope, determination, and despair without mugging. The middle of the story sees Solomon - with a new name, and reduced to little more than a cotton picker - as an observer and occasional victim. Rather than slip into laziness, Ejiofor infuses Solomon's defeated passivity with a tragic grace that only becomes more impressive as time passes.
While Ejiofor carries the movie on his shoulders, he allows his co-stars the bulk of the film's flashier moments. As Mr. and Mrs. Epps, Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson make up one of the most despicable, yet frighteningly believable, couples in recent memory. Whatever their quarrels with each other, they have no problem abusing and manipulating the slaves as a means of attacking each other. As Mr. Epps watches, with mocking delight, his slaves dance, his wife catches him eyeing young Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o, also excellent). Her retaliation is to pick up a glass decanter and toss it at the girl's head, with all of the effort of tossing paper into a waste bin. It's a moment horrifying for its basic cruelty, the chillingly casual manner of its depiction, and implications it has about the Epps' worldviews. That the moment lasts but 10 seconds only magnifies the scene's blunt force.
At this point it almost seems pointless to point out the films flaws, considering how contained they are to the beginning of the movie. However, though the initial missteps don't undercut the power of the conclusion, they do start the film off in a puzzling manner that feels at odds with what follows.
Rather than proceed in strictly linear fashion, the opening begins with a few vignettes of Solomon already on the Epps' plantation. Later, the film inserts brief flashbacks to Northrup's time with his wife and two children as they go about their life as free and respected members of society. The "payoff" that this structure delivers is little more than a condensed repeat of the opening scenes in a bizarre attempt to generate a moment of psychological tension. Compared with the elegant frankness of the film's majority, these moments can't help but feel rough around the edges. Hans Zimmer's early scoring contributions don't help matters, and threaten to send certain scenes careening off of the rails with their horror movie intensity.
Thankfully, 12 Years a Slave's triumphs do more than make up for its failures. They absolutely demolish them. With all of the accumulated pain and suffering built up over the course of more than two hours, the film arrives at its shattering conclusion. It's an otherworldly combination of hopefulness about the story's end, as well as a cathartic end to a profoundly wrenching journey. McQueen's film could derisively be deemed his broadest and most accessible. However, by tapping into such a difficult subject matter with such precision, he has delivered a challenging, gripping story by staring evil in the eye and never once backing down.