"Take comfort Patsey, the good lord'll manage Epps. In his own time, the good lord'll manage 'em all."
With just two feature films to his name, British director Steve McQueen has shown himself to be a man interested in unflinching looks at the horrors of humanity. It seems a natural fit for him, in his third feature, to tackle one of the greatest horrors that humans have ever perpetrated on one another… slavery. 12 Years a Slave, based on the autobiographical book of the same title, brings McQueen's talent behind the camera to the forefront, and gives us perhaps the most fearless look at these atrocities yet put on film.
Opening in 1841, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free black man living with his wife and two children in Saratoga, NY. When his wife leaves town, Solomon is given an offer by two traveling showmen to come to Washington DC and play violin in a show for a sum he can't refuse. Upon arriving in Washington and completing his first week of service, the two men drug Solomon and sell him into slavery. He is transported by boat to New Orleans where he is given the name Platt and housed in a slave market run by a man named Freeman (Paul Giamatti).
He is first sold to a plantation owner named Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) who seems to be a benevolent man, but after a confrontation between Solomon and one of Ford's overseers (Paul Dano), Ford sells him to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) in an attempt to save his life. Epps is not like Ford in any way. He is a vicious slave owner who uses scripture and violence to keep his slaves subservient. Hope begins to dwindle for Solomon, and as every attempt he makes to get back home to his family fails, he seems doomed to be a slave forever.
12 Years a Slave is one of the most unpleasant viewing experiences you will ever have in a movie theater, but that's to be expected from a director like McQueen. The common thread that runs through his films is that they're difficult to get through, and while you can admire the craftsmanship and talent on display, both in front of and behind the camera, they're not films you'll seek to revisit often. Now, this does not make 12 Years a Slave a bad film; It's quite the opposite. McQueen is able to depict the horrors of slavery with both an immediacy that makes you feel as if you're right there, and an aesthetic distance that keeps you from falling into total despair alongside the characters. It's a balancing act that not many directors can pull off, and I fear that in the hands of someone a bit more heavy-handed behind the camera, it could have fallen into schlock at any moment.
Despite the horrific subject matter, McQueen is able to keep the audience engaged and he achieves this through long takes, some still and some frantically moving around the action. It's a true director's showcase, and one that I can admire from a distance but I would not actively seek to relive anytime soon. It's a horror film dressed up in the clothes of an historical epic, and it's one of the more frightening films ever made. This is true horror, where the promise of sunrise or the arrival of the police is not comfort enough to save the hero from the boogeyman. It's sustained, unrelenting, soul-draining horror.
The biggest fault I can find in the film is in its final two scenes. While they are full of emotional resonance, they're hardly enough to help the audience down from all that's come before and give them a full catharsis. Because the film lacks the glossy Hollywood sheen of a film like Schindler's List, the film's conclusion feels rushed and under-developed in a way that baffles me a bit. Why devote all that time to Solomon's suffering and then not give the audience or even Solomon himself time to breathe after it all, and show him readjusting to his life after slavery? It's a baffling decision, and one driven by the film's devotion to cruelty over hope that makes it virtually impossible for me to want to revisit ever again.
Chiwetel Ejiofor has spent the better part of a decade languishing in thankless supporting roles (Inside Man, Love Actually) or under seen leading roles (Kinky Boots, Redbelt) and here he is finally given a showcase worthy of his talents. His performance is remarkable for its nuances and layers, and he shines throughout. He has a handful of truly amazing moments, but they are in service of a fully realized performance, and he is more than deserving of all the acclaim that will come his way as a result. Fassbender is both his equal and opposite in every way, and while he's given the flashier role, he manages to infuse it with a quiet menace that matches his more explosive moments. It's a role that could have very easily slipped into caricature, but he's a savvy enough actor not to fall victim to that temptation.
The rest of the supporting cast is outstanding as well, with Lupita Nyong'o being the true standout as Patsey, Epps' favored slave, and one for whom he reserves his greatest cruelties. In her first major film role, she manages to create a fully formed and wholly empathetic character, one for whom your heart will break, and she does it so effortlessly. The only two actors with whom I could find much fault would be Paul Dano & Brad Pitt. Dano is a world-class over-actor, who comes close to ruining the realism McQueen seeks to achieve, and his performance is jarringly out of step with the rest of the film. My gripe with Pitt is that he seems to be doing a variation on his Aldo Raine character from Inglourious Basterds, and it made me think that he's just hopping from movie to movie as this character, righting social injustices. He's not bad, his choices just took me out of the movie completely.
The film's script by John Ridley is fantastic in its dialogue and scenarios, and its effectiveness lies in how truly sparse it is. The cinematography by McQueen's frequent collaborator Sean Bobbitt is incredibly good, though a bit too prone to standalone Terrence Malick-esque shots of the sun rising or setting through the trees. The biggest detriment to the film, by far, is its score by Hans Zimmer. Zimmer is the kind of composer, much like John Williams, that when he's on, can create great pieces of music, but when he's off, he can be leading and overbearing. Many of the music cues, particularly in the first half of the film, are awful and out of place, and doing what no score should ever do, and that's telling the audience how to feel about a particular moment. Why McQueen chose him, I'll never know, because his score gives the film a Hollywood feel that McQueen was obviously trying to buck at every turn.