Title: 12 Years a Slave
Directed By: Steve McQueen
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Scoot McNairy, Taran Killam, Chris Chalk, Adepero Oduye, Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch, Liza J. Bennett, Paul Dano, Michael Fassbender, Sarah Paulson, Lupita Nyong’o
It’s impossible to call “12 Years a Slave” an enjoyable film, but it is exceptional in every respect, making it a warranted 133-minute nightmare.
Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free man living happily and comfortably in upstate New York with his wife and two young children – until he’s abducted, shipped off to the south and sold into slavery.
“12 Years a Slave” is a beautifully brutal experience. Solomon is a loving father and husband who’s earned his good fortune, so watching him lose everything he holds dear in the most vicious manner possible is crushing. Hope and pray all you want; this movie is called “12 Years a Slave,” so no one’s coming to save the day. Solomon is heading straight towards years and years of slavery and that awareness infuses each and every step of his journey with an astronomical amount of dread.
As a story that runs for more than a decade, the “12 Years a Slave” narrative uses a segmented format. It’s nearly impossible to track how long Solomon spends at each location, but thanks to seamless editing, the film moves forward with the ideal amount of momentum, making the progression both natural and believable.
Each step of the way, Solomon encounters new villains and unfortunate souls all of which are presented as fully realized people with problems of their own. Solomon is our anchor, but strong writing paired with powerful performances offer access to additional perspectives, resulting in a multidimensional character journey for our hero. At the start of his predicament, Solomon crosses paths with another free man who’s also kidnapped and stripped of his privileges. During the journey down south, Solomon functions as the more determined and hopeful of the two, but when this other man is saved by his employer when the boat comes to port, Solomon’s drive is decimated.
Solomon doesn’t just rollover per se, but he does place more value in observing rather than acting and that mentality makes him an incredibly riveting character to track. Ejiofor’s ability to sell both silence and dialogue is masterful. One minute he appears to have given up, falling in line and mindlessly doing his chores, but then something catches his eye. Even though he remains silent, you’re well aware that the wheels are turning, resulting in an intense amount of suspense as you wait for Solomon to make his move.
Even though Solomon earns an exhausting amount of compassion, “12 Years a Slave” boasts two other performances that demand some as well. Adepero Oduye literally cries her way through the film as a woman who loses her children, but the progression of her development is so well timed and executed that by the time you’ve lost your patience with her weeping, write John Ridley hits you with a scene that sheds profound new light on her state of mind.
Lupita Nyong’o is also one to watch, as she will undoubtedly garner awards buzz. Her performance as another slave under Epps’ (Michael Fassbender) control might be one of the most upsetting story lines presented on screen this year. As the most prolific cotton picker on the plantation, Epps considers Patty his most prized possession and his wife (Sarah Paulson) isn’t happy about it. So now, not only is Mrs. Epps out to make Patty’s life a living hell, but Mr. Epps is so unhinged that he winds up doing the same too, leaving poor Patty suffering a double dose of abuse. The situation is devastating in and of itself, but then, thanks to Nyong’o’s breathtakingly raw performance, the heartache hits astronomical levels. Every instance of cruelty in “12 Years a Slave” will make you cringe, however, when it comes to Patty, the resulting sensation becomes much more than pity and sorrow. If only you could jump out of your seat and do something about it.
And a good deal of that also stems from the horrifying evil coursing through the veins of the “12 Years a Slave” villains. Paul Dano is a standout as a young overseer with a short temper and a vendetta against Solomon. One moment, he’s reveling in his command over the slaves, genuinely enjoying it, but the next, Tibeats is consumed by sadistic habits. But even then, Fassbender’s Epps is far worse. Epps insists that his slaves are property and nothing more, and does everything in his power to ensure he strips them of all humanity. Fassbender pours every ounce of himself into this character and the dedication produces truly nightmarish results.
“12 Years a Slave” isn’t an enjoyable film, but it is highly entertaining in the sense that it sucks you in and never lets go. Director Steve McQueen’s choice to linger on particularly torturous visuals will make you want to turn away, but you can’t because abandoning Solomon and the other characters is absolutely unthinkable. These true events took place about 170 years ago, but the film is so raw and riveting, it’ll make you own them, be ashamed of them, and want to do better.