In this stark and boldly oppressive tale, the only thing perhaps more harrowing than the protagonist's journey to survive false enslavement and torture is director Steve McQueen's brazen way of depicting it in the most honest and, quite often, deeply uncomfortable, yet cinematically applaudable manner.
12 Years a Slave is based on the memoir of the same title by Solomon Northup - an African American, living in New York, who was born free, kidnapped, sold into slavery, and kept in bondage for 12 years in the antebellum South.
In the film, Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a talented violinist, is hoaxed by two men claiming to be searching for musicians, who escort him to dinner and take advantage of him in his inebriated state. Solomon wakes up chained to a wall and told that he is no longer a free man. The rest of the film follows his journey working under the ownership of different slave-holders for the next 12 years of his life.
Solomon's survival is fueled by his desire to reunite with his wife and two children in New York but is tested by his own intelligence and often fool-hardiness. Solomon is an intelligent man, who has to hide his literacy from each master. At times, his intelligence gets the best of him and challenges a vapid-minded white man for faulty instructions -- this scene is cheer-inducing in the short run, but breath-holding-ly painful in the long run.
McQueen (Shame, Hunger) is not shy with his depictions of slavery; Beatings, whippings, rapes, hangings and other tortures are shown explicitly and unapologetically. Like Shame and Hunger, McQueen employs the long-take to capture such heinous acts in the most realistic and uncomfortable manner. There's nothing docile or, in the opposite extreme, overtly-gratuitous for the sake of it in these scenes -- they just...are.
McQueen's camera is often poetic, even ironic, capturing the enticingly open Louisiana sky. In one scene, Ejiofor breaks the fourth wall, by looking at the camera in a slow sweeping gaze - Ejiofor's haunting and pleading eyes gaze at us for a few seconds, before looking off camera again. This is similar to a scene in McQueen's Shame, where his sex-addict protagonist stares at the camera during an unemotional three-some. It's heartbreaking.
The film lacks on exposition and characterization in the beginning. We only see a few scenes of Solomon with his family, before he is surreptitiously whisked away. That's expected, though, with a film encompassing a long narrative time frame. Solomon's sorrow and bereavement, however, are not lost on us, which is the crucial part.
What is astounding, however, are the gritty performances. Ejiofor has a solemn and serious disposition, disrupted by weighty outbursts. He is completely vulnerable - physically and emotionally. By the end of the film, he appears as a man who's been through Hell and back, but maybe that's his settlement. "I don't want to survive," he states. "I want to live."
Paul Dano plays Tibeats, a hot-headed slave driver who has it out for Solomon and sings a deplorably nasty song (that I hope doesn't catch on). Tibeats' volatile and creepy persona draw comparisons to Dano's performance in There Will Be Blood, where he played a God zealot with greedy intentions. Here, Dano's portrayal of such an abominable character is superb. Somehow, we've come to love to hate him.
Among the many wonderful performances, none come close to Michael Fassbender's portrayal of Edwin Epps, a cotton plantation owner and a drunk who takes joy in waking his slaves in the middle of the night and making them dance, tiredly, in his lavish Southern home. Fassbender's magnetic off-screen charm is completely lost here. Epps is a deranged man with little self control and his uneasy physical proxemics to his slaves make him all the more creepy.
Unfortunately the soundtrack is not as memorable. Hans Zimmer's score is, in the moment, potent but tragically forgettable thereafter. At best, it appropriately ornates the story without overpowering it. Sometimes the most powerful scenes are ones accompanied by deafening silence, because they're usually a cacophony of emotions.
At its worst, the film is long and depressing. At its best, it's emotional and unnerving. There's little sense of resolution or cause for joy at the end. There's nothing uplifting about this film but that's the point, isn't it? The melancholic ending demonstrates that there is little to erase the tragedies that have occurred.
There's no forgetting this film either. Each scene is like sipping a cold pint of Southern-brewed sobriety. By the end, we're intoxicated with our country's shameful history.