Director Steve McQueen ((Shame)) has taken the personal nightmare of freeman turned slave turned freeman Solomon Northrup and made a masterpiece. The film relies heavily on some stunning performances by an astounding cast but it is its ability to deeply affect audiences and move them to action that will be its lasting legacy.
Premise: The long forgotten tale of Solon Northrup, free Northern man sold into slavery prior to the Civil War. Result: Sunning direction and performances elevate this film to classic, not-to-be forgotten status.
Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a freeman living in upstate New York, was a world-class fiddler raising an upstanding family, is one day introduced to entrepreneur’s Brown (Scoot McNairy) and Hamilton (Taran Killam) who convince him to accompany them to Washington, D.C. There he was to join a brief series of shows (something like a upscale carnival) and make some notable money in just a few short nights.
But they fool him and instead rob him of his identity and hand him over to slavers like Burch (Christopher Berry) who board him onto a ship to Louisiana along with other “new” slaves like Eliza (Adepero Oduye) and her children. From the first moment audiences witness this betrayal, there is a certain insipid horror that will fester deep within, a burgeoning rage that will grow more powerful as the film staggers onward.
And onward it goes: Northrup is indeed sold into slavery where he is confronted with terrors and injustices that will boil blood. He witnesses Eliza’s cruel separation from here family at the hands of slaver Freeman (Paul Giamatti), is acquired by slaver Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), and tormented and ridiculed by Ford’s master carpenter Tibeats (Paul Dano). Despite Northrups’ unique skills, everyone associated with him becomes complicit in the lie that has taken his freedom and his life
Ultimately, Northrop was sold to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a monster of epic proportions. His obsessive cruelty to the overt object of his affection Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) combined with the jealous rage from his wife (Sarah Paulson) is shocking and yet mesmerizing. Their antics play out on screen as a wicked nightmare, an all-consuming crucible of madness and malice that borders on absurdity – that humans could possibly be capable of debasing others in ways they would not consider degrading animals or simple objects is mind-boggling.
And so this becomes the central theme of this film: impenetrable anger. Many films about slavery tend to provoke certain specific emotions, such as sadness and shame; 12 Years a Slave has a somewhat similar but also staggeringly unique response. It is not shame or mere anger that rises in viewers, it is personal devastation, deep-seeded outrage that burgeons forth and becomes an all-consuming obsession. The reaction to this film cannot be passive, it will be active anger.
This is naturally supported by some truly fantastic performances from some notably brilliant actors. Ejiofor, always strong, has now propelled himself into another class of performer with his control and stunning range of emotion. His brilliance is expressed both in his silence as well as in his speech.
Perfectly balanced with Ejiofor’s calculated delivery is Fassbender’s equally stunning madness, a catastrophic whirlwind on screen that is equal parts cruelty, vulnerability, wrath and animal instinct. Paulson also does well effectively portraying a woman consumed with envy and a similar vile brutality
At the other edge of this horrific extreme is the phenomenal performance Nyong’o as a woman trapped squarely in between these two crazies and subjected to a life of utter hopelessness and misery. There are moments in this film where observers cannot help but fallen into melancholy watching what becomes of her.
On the other hand, there are some performances that seem both off and virtually anachronistic: Killam’s Hamilton just feels off from moment one, as if McQueen had required him to spout out all of his lines in record time they are often devoid of feeling or fall to the opposite extreme as absurd caricature.
But most notably is Bard Pitt’s random cameo as Bass. Pitt, like Killam is clearly talented, but like Killam is completely off in this role. It drops so deep into the well of poor performance as to drown him completely in it as audiences watch, distracted completely by the stunningly off delivery.
Overall, however, there is no stopping this film. It is powerful to a degree that it will deeply affect viewers in deep and unique ways. It is unique and it is tragic and it will not be soon forgotten.
Rating: 9 – An expensive red wine and juicy steak that someone else is paying for and where you don’t have to put out