Friday, November 1, 2013

A Reel Review: 12 YEARS A SLAVE

Director/writer Steve McQueen’s 12 YEARS A SLAVE is simply the most devastating, powerful, and brutally honest look at slavery in the United States ever filmed. Based upon the real-life memoirs of Solomon Northup, it is clear in its intention to portray slavery as the darkest chapter in American history. But most importantly, doesn’t let that get in the way of telling a very compelling character story.
Solomon Northrop (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free man living in New York with his family when he is kidnapped into slavery and sold by a slave-trader (Paul Giamatti), to a kind and fair plantation owner (Benedict Cumberbatch). After an incident with one of the masters (Paul Dano), Northrop, stripped of his real name and re-named “Platt”, is then sold to another plantation which is run by a ruthless and villainous drunk (Michael Fassbender) and his malicious wife (Sarah Paulson).

12 YEARS A SLAVE never once hides the ugliness of slavery. Northrop is literally stripped of his identity, beaten within an inch of his life, and turned into anything but a human being. While the beatings are raw and unabashed and the living conditions are exposed in all of their disgusting glory, 12 YEARS A SLAVE never loses focus of its main character. We are with him the entire way as the film never has a frame without him. Every bit of emotion is powerfully pulled out of Northrop and into the audience, and it is a harrowing and immersive big-screen experience. The film is a trip through a hellish nightmare, telling the story of just how much one man can endure.
Director Steve McQueen, through his excellent camera work and sound-editing, creates a magnificent atmosphere from the very beginning. The heat of the deep-south can be constantly felt, as can the sickening crack of a whip against bare skin. Many scenes go on for one long take with no cuts; executed so well you wonder just how they pulled it off. Scenes filmed at night which are lit only by candlelight and fire are stunningly beautiful, and McQueen generates just as much emotion as he does tension and dread. Somehow, McQueen makes the most disgusting scenes ever filmed difficult for us to turn away from, because we are so emotionally invested. Hans Zimmer provides an incredibly moving score which strikes below the cockles in every note.

Performances are tremendous all around. ­­­ Chiwetel Ejiofor is astounding in bringing about a wide range of emotions, and McQueen’s lingering camera gives him the opportunity to hit us in the gut just from the look on his face. Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson make for the two most despicable villains ever to grace the silver screen, and why they are that way is gracefully and excellently explored. Paul Giamaitti and Paul Dano are also very good, as is Brad Pitt who shows up near the end for what amounts to an extended, yet effective cameo. The show is nearly stolen by Lupita Nyong’o, who plays a fellow slave who becomes a victim to constant rapes and beatings. Benedict Cumberbatch struggles with his southern accent, which makes him the weakest out of the large and exceptional cast.
The ending can loosely be considered a happy one, as Northrop’s harrowing journey has not only taken a toll on himself, but on the audience as well; you can be promised dead silence when the film fades to black and the credits roll as everyone tries to comprehend what they just saw. It would be dismissive to call 12 YEARS A SLAVE a slave-film, for it is ultimately about the human spirit…and those kind of stories and films can be timeless in the hands of master craftsmen. Steve McQueen and Chiwetel Ejiofor prove exactly that in this film; it is expertly constructed, brilliantly performed, and timeless in its impact.


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