There are films that demand to be watched. There are films that make you think and make you feel and make you experience a world you've never known and a world you may never want to know, but the film itself has such a tight grip on you that you dare not let go of it even for a fleeting second.
12 Years a Slave is such a film, a film that masters the true artistry behind being a truly important film without ever feeling like that's exactly what director Steve McQueen was aiming for when he decided to tackle such a stark and devastating film. I could wax eloquently about 12 Years a Slave all day long and try to make it more palatable so that I could convince you that you simply must see this absolutely unforgettable film that still gives me chills every single time I think about it. 12 Years a Slave is about slavery, and it doesn't disguise for a second that it's about slavery and the raw and brutal suffering that accompanied those who were slaves.
This isn't a Spielberg film with beautifully framed lensing and paint-by-numbers morality tales.
This isn't a Tarantino film, graphic yet bathed in humor and cheekiness and cartoonish violence.
No, indeed, this is a Steve McQueen film and if it doesn't end up being the year's best film it is most assuredly one of the very best films of the year and easily this year's film that you truly, absolutely will not forget. It is a relentlessly brutal film, but it is also without question the best film about slavery ever to be made.
Much of the film's success centers around the Oscar-worthy performance of Chiwetel Ejiofor, a respected actor perhaps most known for his work in the film Kinky Boots yet an actor who has proven time and again that he is capable of greatness when he finds himself tackling truly great material.
Twelve Years a Slave is great material and anything less than an Oscar for Ejiofor is unfathomable and would be one of the truly great disappointments of awards season.
Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup, an African-American man born free in pre-Civil War America who makes his living as a violinist while supporting his wife and children. One day, a couple of circus types offer him the chance of a lifetime to go on tour.
So, he agrees. As one can just tell from the moment they enter the picture, what sounds too good to be true is definitely too good to be true and soon Northup finds himself kidnapped and sold into slavery - his first owner, Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), is rather kind, but eventually a run-in with Ford's overseer (Paul Dano) leads to Ford being forced to pass Solomon on to the far more sadistic Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), whose brutality seemingly knows no limits and most likely crosses the line into the land of psychosis. Solomon finds himself amidst a bizarre "love" triangle between Solomon, Solomon's wife (Sarah Paulson) and a slave named Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o), a woman whom we are told has caught Edwin's fancy yet a woman who is nothing more than property to be brutalized, humiliated and ravaged.
Again and again.
Maybe too much. Maybe not enough.
There is more. There is so much more, but to share too much would be a shame because words alone truly are inadequate to describe the experience of breathing in 12 Years a Slave.
There will be some will compare 12 Years a Slave to something along the lines of Precious, though the comparison is unfair and wildly inaccurate. A more reasonable comparison might actually be Spielberg's Schindler's List, a film that captured man's inhumanity in a way that was heartbreakingly difficult to watch but impossible to ignore.
The film is based upon an 1853 memoir by the real Northup, and perhaps it is the realization that this is based on a true story and on many true stories that gives the film an even more powerful impact.
While I've yet to see Robert Redford's acclaimed performance in All is Lost, right now it seems impossible to think of anyone turning in as fine a performance as Ejiofor does here. Ejiofor performance is brilliant even in its moments of silence as we witness a man who was free, knows he was free, and yet is now helpless to find his way back to that freedom. Ejiofor wears, absolutely wears, Northup's resigned spirit that bends but seemingly never breaks. The same is true for Lupita Nyong'o as Patsey, whose performance is among the most vulnerable performances I can recall in recent or maybe even distant memory. Michael Fassbender, who worked with McQueen on the flawed yet acclaimed Shame, manages to take a character whose every action seems filled with venom and he breathes life into it so that even as the brutality at times seems as relentless as that inflicted upon Christ in The Passion of the Christ, it is impossible to turn away through your horror and your tears. Dano and Giamatti, in far too brief appearances, make for unforgettable villains while Brad Pitt and Benedict Cumberbatch give the audience those desperately needed moments when one can actually breathe.
Hans Zimmer's original music is both sensitive yet jarring in the way it almost cyclically portrays what feels like Northup's never-ending journey. John Ridley's screenplay manages to capture the horror, the resigned humanity, and the universality of Northup's story. As a director, McQueen has at times bathed his films in far too much style over substance yet here he manages to balance the style and substance in capturing the minute details of this period drama with the intimacy of its story. While I'm not quite ready to declare it a perfect film, some of the minor characters perhaps being a bit too minor, McQueen has crafted a near masterpiece that simply demands to be seen.
Picked up by Fox Searchlight for a slowly rolling out release across the country, 12 Years a Slave may very well be one of the most difficult films you will see this year but it is also one of the most important films to hit American theaters in 2013.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic