Sunday, November 3, 2013

Film #155: 12 Years a Slave

I saw Steve McQueen's 12 YEARS A SLAVE yesterday, and lemme tell ya, this is the film of the year--historically invaluable (outside of maybe the 12-hour TV miniseries ROOTS, the best filmed work ever produced on its subject), beautifully crafted and overwhelmingly emotional. I want to encourage--plead with, even--all to see it. However, I would be wrong not to mention that it's a difficult movie to view, for anyone. It's a gut punch that leaves you winded, as well it should--and it does so not with unending violence, but with needling misery punctuated by great grace. It illustrates a terrible set of crimes we must recognize and face up to in order to finally begin to vanquish its stink--and this "we" is not only America, but the "we" in all countries with slavery in their past or present, which basically includes the world entire. Like Steven Spielberg's SCHINDLER'S LIST, another brutally relentless picture to which it's been most readily compared (though not exactly accurately), this is a detailed telling of painful truths which we each have a collective responsibility to experience in all their abysmal power. 

In a scant 133 minutes, McQueen makes us feel every longing moment of Solomon Northup's kidnapping from his New York home, where he was once a successful musician and family man, and his seemingly endless imprisonment in a state of constant threat, frustration, back-breaking labor, and spirit-breaking hopelessness. The very title of the film let's us know that the protagonist (an excellent Chewitel Ejiofor) finally escapes his dour fate, and for that mercy, we're grateful. But the movie more importantly makes you also feel a bottomless anguish for those souls who share in his experience--those who had to wait for more blood to be shed, across a divided nation, before they could sample freedom, if they survived the journey at all. 

A major factor in the movie's success is the completely wrenching performance by Lupita Nyong'o as Patsey, a female slave caught between the sexual assaults of her psychopathic "master" (a hissable Michael Fassbender, continuing his long collaboration with McQueen) and his jealous, icy wife (the equally hateful Sarah Paulson). Nyong'o is incredibly talented and is, like the movie as a whole, instantly the frontrunner this awards season for her supporting performance that, in some of 12 YEARS A SLAVE's most compelling sequences, brands itself onto our brains. Fearless, she makes her character's physical and spiritual depletion utterly, unerringly palpable. 

This film's remaining cast is tremendous as well. Paul Giamatti is especially memorable in his brief showing as an unspeakably heartless slave trader (the scene where he separates a female slave from her children is torturous, and is easily the most nefarious screen moment ever for this usually likable actor); the typically unwashed Paul Dano is well positioned as an scary field boss; Alfre Woodard has a superb key sequence as a former slave who's somewhat cynically--and shrewdly--forged a path to survival by marrying into master status; and Brad Pitt, as a journeyman carpenter from Canada, is a gentle presence as the film's one pale-skinned voice of reason and compassion (Benedict Cumberbatch, as a blindly and ironically religious former "owner" of Northup's, is at least slightly giving, though still monsterous). Beyond the performances, Sean Bobbit's sumptuous widescreen photography reminds us that this violence and oppression occurred in places of dichotomous beauty (McQueen gently illustrates the passage of time without irritating title cards but instead with brilliantly melancholy views of the Louisiana countryside), Hans Zimmer's dischordant score provides a unsettling note throughout, Joe Walker's editing is perfectly timed, and John Ridley's screenplay is beyond reproach in dialogue, insight, and pace. 

Steve McQueen, whose British nationality adds a valuable outsider's perspective, is apparently fascinated and moved by imprisoned characters; his previous films, the Irish prison-set Bobby Sands biopic HUNGER and the sexual addiction drama SHAME--a movie I didn't care for, because of its distancing chilliness--prove this. Here, McQueen forsakes only a bit of the slick, long-taked gaze he displayed in those works but, without jettisoning his measured and unflinching style, he's traded up for a more valuable and effective emotional impact (12 YEARS A SLAVE is the only 2013 film that has moved me to tears). Amongst a massive number of unshakable images, I find I really can't shake the one shot of Ejiofor's Northup that most stunningly illustrates the high quality of both the director and the actor's unique efforts: a lengthy close-up of Northup silently considering his place in the world, and then looking directly into the camera as if to plead for the audience's help, and perhaps to recognize our complicity (also extremely unforgettable: a very long take of Northup on the end of a lynching rope, with his feet barely touching the ground and his body just on the verge of being choked lifeless, with no one--not even other slaves--coming to his assistance). 

Ejiofor is forced into giving a somewhat reigned-in performance, since the only emotions Northup can safely display are ones tinged with suffering. But this doesn't make his showing here any less detailed and disciplined. Steve McQueen's 12 YEARS A SLAVE will definitely have you wincing and weeping, and will also certainly stun you into a long, contemplative reverie as you consider, and are overwhelmed by, the cruelties the very concept of slavery inflicts upon its irredeemable perpetrators, who live dark lives of despicable heartlessness, and its hapless victims, who've experienced unimaginably gratuitous despair and, yet, somehow, retain a superhuman iron will to press on past the hell. This movie's own bravery is, in a similar light, heroic. 


Sam Juliano said...

Not at all surprised that it moved you to tears Dean. Your passionate and inspired piece of scholarship captures are the vital reasons why this may well be the most serious contender for film of the year. Agree that Fassbender and Paulsen play despicable characters, and that Lupita Nyong'o gives the film's most surprising performance. Chewitel Ejiofor seems headed for a barrel of Best Actor prizes from the critics and is the leading contender over Redford and McConoughy at present. Zimmer's sparing music is used to excellent effect, and the film isn't the least bit sentimental. In the end it's heartbreaking and harrowing, and remains unforgettable. I actually saw it earlier this evening with most of the family who had not attended the first time. Your extraordinary review is just what the doctor ordered for me and has received the well-deserved top spot on the returning diary link scroll at my site.

Dean Treadway said...

Thank you so much, Sam!