Friday, November 15, 2013

Review: 12 Years a Slave


12 Years a Slave is the first Steve McQueen film I have ever seen (not THIS McQueen, or even this one).  The relatively new director is most famous for his Michael Fassbender vehicle Shame that came out in 2011.  From what I witnessed in McQueen's latest effort, a brutally raw and revealing look at American slavery in the mid-1800s, this is a director who in only his third film has full command of the screen and brings out the very best in his cast.  While depressing and truly uncomfortable at times, the super team of McQueen, Fassbender and Chiwetel Ejiofor manages to deliver one of the very best films of 2013.

Ejiofor (a rather unheralded veteran of films such as Children of Men, Salt and 2012) plays Solomon Northup, a free black man living in New York who is tricked into coming to Washington DC and is unwillingly sold into slavery.  Most of the film focuses on his struggle for survival over the 12 years he is held in slavery.  We see a variety of authentic southern plantation locations (filmed beautifully by cinematographer Sean Bobbitt) inhabited by rich men and women who take out their frustrations with society on their hired help.  Moving from slave owner to slave owner, Northup is faced with an increasingly grim vision of his future and the memories of his wife and two sons begin to fade as they are replaced with brutal images of whipping, rape and torture mixed in with day-after-day of cotton picking and other manual labor.

Never before has the ideal and horror that is American slavery been depicted so vividly and authentically on-screen.  McQueen realizes early-on that he has a gem of a young actor in Ejiofor.  He manages to convey a wealth of emotion to the audience just by holding the camera on Northup for long takes at a time.  One particularly wrenching and harrowing scene features Northup narrowly avoiding a hanging and standing on his tiptoes in a southern swamp for what seems like hours while the other help and slave masters walk around him, completely ignoring his struggle to remain breathing.  This shot lasts perhaps 3-5 minutes completely focused on Ejiofor without and music or dialogue.  Yet it is completely gripping and tense and holds the viewers' attention.  Ejiofor dominates this film and is able to emote so much with just a weary stare.  We feel the pain that he has endured and understand his lifeless eyes that symbolize someone who has all but given up hope.  It is particularly trying to see Northup's life before slavery as an accomplished well-educated cello player who associated and dined with the wealthy.  Watching that all get stripped away from him and seeing his own personal struggle to remain humble and try to fit in to his current situation, is the soul of this movie that Ejiofor helps drive home effortlessly.  With all due respect to Tom Hanks (Captain Phillips) and Robert Redford (All is Lost), this year's Best Actor prize will be most deservedly in the hands of Ejiofor who gives a performance of a lifetime in a very tough role.  The Best Actor 2013 Oscar race might well feature the most accomplished group of performances in quite some time.

Fassbender, who is slowly but surely becoming the best actor of his generation, is amazing as slave owner Edwin Epps.  He gives a manic performance that borderlines on crazy but always seems under control.  The rage of Epps builds inside Fassbender during moments of calm comfort between him and his slaves and strikes out during brutal pieces of frustrated anger.  Fassbender becomes a monster on-screen and creates a villain that the audience (and Northrup) are eager to hate.  I can easily see Fassbender bringing home his first Academy Award next year for this effort.  In addition to the two acting stars of this moive, McQueen manages to pack in oustanding supporting talent in Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti (as an extremely racist and heartless slave trader), Sarah Paulson, Paul Dano (who is always excellent at whatever he does) and Brad Pitt.  Newcomer Lupita Nyong'o is able to hold her own against Fassbender and Ejiofor as the doomed slave Patsey.  She stands out during the almost-unwatchable whipping scene towards the end of the film that is beautifully framed and directed by McQueen.  

Right now I see Best Picture as a two horse race between 12 Years a Slave and Gravity.  I have to give a slight edge to Alfonso Cuaron's masterpiece because of just how groundbreaking a technical achievement it was.  That being said, McQueen's film is truly remarkable in it's own right and should be seen by everyone as a reminder of the deep scars that exist in America's past.  A very strong 5 out of 5 JRs for the best acted movie of 2013.