Tuesday, November 19, 2013

The Transfixing 12 Years a Slave

     Without seeing the film, many will classify 12 Years a Slave--just by watching the trailer during television commercial breaks--as typical Oscar bait: an incredibly emotional subject matter that takes place in a past period of time, an all-star cast with its main star performing one of the best portrayals of the year, and all types of devastating moments that the Academy gets incredibly excited about.  But they would be wrong. A movie featuring a story about slavery that focuses on realism instead of humor or revenge (like last year's Django Unchained), 12 Years a Slave is an unflinching, blinders-off look at one of America's most shameful times. It also cements the status of its director and two of its stars as contemporary greats.
     Based upon the autobiography of the same name (Twelve instead of 12) written in 1853, the film tells the story of Solomon Northup, a free black man living in New York who gets kidnapped and sold into slavery, working on plantations in Louisiana for twelve years. A husband and father of two young children, Solomon is portrayed by Chiwetel Ejiofor in a career-defining role, one that will be tough to beat in the upcoming awards season. The entire film's success rests firmly on his shoulders, and he performs admirably. Doing just enough to survive and not stick out to the (mostly) evil plantation owners, Ejiofor is wonderful at showing us his inner devastation and confusion at the insane situation that he finds himself in. It's completely unbelievable--we see it in his face, his body language, his actions.
     It's not easy for the myriad of us to relate to being in bondage, because most of us haven't experienced it. But since Solomon seems like such a good and normal (and free) guy before he drunkenly gets kidnapped, we're thrown into the chains with him. After a short introduction, it's not long before Solomon wakes up in a dank prison cell and is beaten without mercy. He's told to forget his old name and profession and admit that he's a slave. He adopts a new name, Platt, and is shipped down to Louisiana to be sold to the highest bidder. From here on out, 12 Years a Slave takes a dream-like (or nightmarish) quality, focusing solely on Solomon and a cast of nefarious characters in an odyssey of torment and incredible acting.
    Solomon is passed between owners at first after being sold at auction by Theophilus Freeman (Paul Giamatti in a uniquely unlikable roll). He starts with William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), who is about as likable as a slave owner can be--deep down, it's easy to understand that he thinks what he is doing may be completely wrong. But when Solomon crosses paths one too many times with Plantation overseer, John (Paul Dano, showcasing plenty of that There Will Be Blood intensity), Mr. Ford pawns him off to a new owner: Edwin Epps. Epps is portrayed by Michael Fassbender, and any friend or constant reader of these reviews knows how intense my man-crush for Fassbender is. And in 12 Years a Slave, he's arguably never been better. Epps is a drunkard who takes it upon himself to break any slave that stands up against his ways: he's brutal and terrifying. He has a mad-eyed intensity and a penchant for molesting a young black female who picks him the most cotton in the fields. It couldn't have been easy portraying such a character, yet every scene with Fassbender is electrifying and full of tension-- the work of one of the best actors working under the age of 40.
     British film director Steve McQueen created two films before 12 Years a Slave, and both were exercises in originality and greatness: 2008's Hunger (in which Fassbender starred as Irish hunger-striker Bobby Sands) and 2011's Shame (in which Fassbender also starred and showcased the dark side of sexual addiction). He solidifies his position as an always-watch director with 12 Years a Slave. McQueen is a cinema artist: of course this is a completely brutal film at times, but McQueen only shows us what we need to see. Never more. One particularly want-to-turn-away-but-can't scene involves Epps forcing Solomon to perform a lashing on Patsey, whom Epps is particularly fond of. The combination of first the sounds and then the quick turning of the camera to watch to outcome of the whip is like a shot of adrenaline that you don't want. And McQueen's handling of Solomon's ever-changing status between wanting to escape and wanting to survive is beautifully done.
     12 Years a Slave is not a perfect film. It follows a path of other ensemble period pieces that have dozens of recognizable character actors and huge stars that doesn't quite allow it to reach a level of naturalsim that transcends cinema (something the subject of slavery could someday do). Even Brad Pitt shows up late--in a small role--to potentially help our main character. He seems a little out of place. And the film never truly exceeded my expectations, though it met them head on. But these small things never truly deter 12 Years a Slave from being an Oscar movie to seek out. With two great performances by Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender, and confident direction by Steve McQueen, it's one of the best films of 2013.     (A-)

No comments:

Post a Comment