(At the advice of a friend of mine, I’ve decided to add visuals to my reviews. It’s just going to be movie posters for now, but maybe more later. So…enjoy.)
12 Years a Slave is less a movie and more an endurance test. The movie is easily the hardest to watch movie I’ve seen all year, with certain scenes bordering on physically painful to watch. It’s depictions of slavery and the horrors the slaves endure is brutal enough to make Django Unchained go running for cover. It’s lucky therefore that it’s the best movie I’ve seen all year, or else it might not be worth the pain associated with its watching.
The plot, based heavily on a true story, is encapsulated neatly in its title. Chiwetel Ejiofor has the lead as Solomon Northrop, a free man living as close to a normal life as a black man could reasonably hope for in 1941 New York City. But, after accepting a job from a pair of sketchy men, he finds himself in New Orleans, stripped of the papers that identify him as a free man and sold as a slave. For the next 12 years he is shuttled from one horrifying physical or mental torment to another.
Which might be the films biggest and most important choice. Most movies on slavery or similar subjects that we’d rather ignore, try to opt out or insert a fantasy of some kind. Even Django Unchained, for all of its touted realism, put the outsider POV out of responsibility and out of harm’s way (at least with regards to the actual slavery), with Dr. Schultz. Here the outsider is the slave himself, and the movie is unflinching and savage in its depictions of the horrors the slaves undergo.
This becomes the movie’s second major twist in its depiction of slavery. Both Solomon and the audience desperately want him to fight back, or to do something, but every time he does he is slapped down hard, and even if he could he would just be one man against the world and even the law, as insane and backwards as that seems. He can’t even tell anyone he can read and write, because whoever he told would be legally obligated not to help, but to kill him on the spot. This framing makes slavery as an institution seem like a fever dream for the entire country and it’s all the more horrifying for it when you remember that it was real.
Most of the weight of this is on Chiwetel to sell, and I cannot overstate how much he does. He’s running a major acting marathon here, where he has to play a character who is literally forcing himself to blend in and try not to be noticed. Most of his acting has to be done with posture and subtle facial expression and he has to convey as much, if not more, with when he chooses not to speak as he does when he speaks. This is an incredibly hard kind of performance to do, and the fact that he pulls it off means that he’s already at the top of my list of best performances for the year.
A downplayed lead actor usually means that you’ve got more showy roles in the supporting cast and in this respect 12 Years is no exception. Paul Giamatti shows up early and brilliantly (good in everything, remember?) as an off-handedly evil auctioneer, opposite Benedict Cumberbatch, who does quite well as a relatively benevolent slave owner. The framing of Cumberbatch’s actions remind us that even less evil is still evil and it’s nice to see Cumberbatch set to something other than ham. But the really showy roles go to Michael Fassbender as a true-blue psychopath of a slave owner and his more quietly sociopathic wife played by Sarah Paulson, who’s ire is aroused by her husband’s obsession with a pretty female slave. Fassbender is tasked with playing a character who’s evil even by slave owner standards, which is hard to do and he does it well. Oh and Paul Dano is in it too, in a relatively minor role. Between this and Prisoners, he REALLLLLLLLLLY wants to be on my top 10 of the year, huh?
All of these brilliant performances come together with an excellent screenplay and truly gorgeous cinematography, used to emphasize the sheer absurdities of certain sequences. It was directed by Steve McQueen, previously of Hunger and Shame (both of which I know you haven’t seen, and both of which you definitely should) and here his talent for putting you in the headspace of his leads is used to force you to confront the horrors of slavery head on. I’ve no doubt he’ll be up for Best Director this year (if the Academy can stomach this movie) and I doubt that’ll be the last they see of them.
Its usually hard to tell if a movie is going to be important later on when it first comes out, because what does and doesn’t last can often be hard to gauge in the moment. But even if 12 Years a Slave doesn’t become a modern classic, which it almost certainly will, what’s important now is that it is the best film I’ve seen all year. Despite the near physical revulsion I suffered watching this, I cannot recommend it enough. See you next time.
Elessar is a 23 year old Alaskan born cinphile and that movie poster looks uncomfortably like the one from Catch Me If You Can.