I really need to see writer/director Steve McQueen’s directorial debut, HUNGER. Heard it’s brilliant. I saw SHAME 2 years ago, and I loved it! This guy really has a distinct directorial style. He knows what he’s doing. When I heard that he was going to follow up that film with a movie about slavery starring the very under appreciated Chiwetel Ejiofor, I got very excited. Also, given the tone of his first two films, I was prepared for this to be a tough film to sit through.
Ejiofor stars as Solomon Northup, a free black man with wife and kids, living in upstate New York during the 1800’s. He is drugged and sold into slavery down south. The rest of the film chronicles his struggle being a slave for the next 12 years. His first master is a kind (for a slave owner) man named Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). After an incident with one of Ford’s not-so-nice slave drivers (Paul Dano), Solomon is then sold to a sinister man named Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). He treats his slaves worse than dogs, constantly flogging them. Epps also frequently rapes one of the other slaves, Patsey (newcomer Lupita Nyong’o), much to the protest of his wife, who treats Patsey even worse than her husband does. While Solomon endures all of this, he never gives up hope that one day he will be free.
I’ve heard many people complaining that there are no good horror films this Halloween season. Well, I’d like to beg to differ, because this is one of the most horrifying, terrifying, frightening films I have ever seen. Horror films don’t really do it for me. Supernatural beings and monsters just aren’t scary to me. But this? This HAS happened! This is REAL horror! I found this more effective than most horror films that have populated the multiplex as of late. This film is shot like a living nightmare! The result is one of the most painful experiences I’ve had at a movie in quite a while. If you like it when a movie shakes you up and slaps you in the face, like myself, then you’ll find much to appreciate about 12 YEARS A SLAVE.
The film really wastes no time. There’s only a couple of scenes in the beginning to establish Solomon as a kind family man before he’s drugged and sold. These early scenes when he’s realizing what is happening to him are just as terrifying than anything in TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE. Even the score is disturbingly sinister. The film doesn’t have a normal narrative. It spans over a decade, so the film merely presents situations that happened to Solomon during this time. Every moment shows how it affects him. Whether it be a moment when he’s being hung and trying to save himself by standing on his tiptoes while people just walk by him without notice, or the toughest scene in the movie when Solomon is forced to whip another slave. This is a heartbreaker of a film.
I’ve heard some people compare this to SCHINDLER’S LIST, but I disagree. This film isn’t even close to being that inspirational. I would compare it more to PASSION OF THE CHRIST (though this is way better than that over appreciated film). It’s just as brutal and unflinching. It’s like being flogged for 2 hours. It’s definitely an unforgettable experience.
The acting is pretty outstanding. Ejiofor gives an emotionally draining performance. Most of it is reactionary, which is all the more impressive. He’s definitely a front-runner come Oscar time. Michael Fassbender (working with McQueen for his 3rd straight time) gives a brave portrayal of an evil man. If you thought this actor was charming before, be prepared to hate him in this. This guy is a monster. Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey gives an astounding debut performance. Her character probably goes through the most unbearable things. There’s also solid work from Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti and Paul Dano. I would also like to give notice to Sarah Paulson as Fassbender’s wife. Her performance is likely to get overlooked because of buzz surrounding Nyong’o, and that’s too bad because she’s fantastic. Seeing her jealous of Patsey and how she treats her gives her character more layers than anyone in movie. The only miscasting is Brad Pitt as a kind drifter. He’s only in 2 scenes, but his star power took me out of the movie. He doesn’t do a bad job, but I wonder if I would have liked him better if he wasn’t doing the same voice he used as Aldo Raine in INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS. It was distracting. Otherwise, the movie is well cast.
McQueen has definitely proven that he’s a filmmaker to be reckoned with. He directs every moment of this movie with a sure hand. I love it that he doesn’t just use the standard filmmaking formula (mastershot/over-the-shoulder/close-up). He uses obtuse angles and long takes to show you the horrors of slavery. The best crafted scene in the movie is also the hardest to watch: When Solomon is forced to whip another slave. The camera whips around the scene without a single cut. Logistically, this was a really hard scene to pull off, and it’s honestly, the most impressive single shot I have seen all year. Blew my mind. The script by John Ridley captures the horror of slavery. And Hans Zimmer’s score is the best horror score of the year. But it does have its tender moments.
It may sound like that this is the bleakest film of the year, and it may be. But the film is also not without hope, which is what kept me glued to the movie. That’s what kept me engaged. Hope. I was hoping that Solomon would regain his freedom again. I was hoping he would be reunited with his family.
This movie isn’t going to be for everyone. It’s one tough movie to sit through. But I found it rewarding in its film technique and its hope. It’s got powerful performances, exhilarating filmmaking and a terrifying story. This is the closest anyone is ever going to get to what it felt like to be a slave. This is a nightmare of a film, but an unforgettable one. ★★★½ (out of ★★★★)
– Rated R for violence/cruelty, some nudity and brief sexuality.
– Running time: 2hrs 14min.