Affecting "12 Years A Slave" Falls Just Short Of Excellence

Steve McQueen’s “12 Years A Slave” – a mostly unflinching work that’s likely to leave viewers flinching perpetually – is arguably the most explicit cinematic interpretation of American slavery to date. Not that it has much competition. In the wake of Spielberg’s “Lincoln” and Tarantino’s “Django Unchained,” “12 Years A Slave” doesn’t seem an unusual as it is, with few films having broached the subject. McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley are clearly aware of the magnitude of their duties, putting their subject matter under the most high-powered of microscropes. The end result, while uneven, is appropriately stark, mournful, and gripping, making a deep impression on the landscape of American history on film.

The picture is, primarily, a study of slavery as an institution. The true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man from Saratoga, New York who was sold into slavery, is less of a narrative and more of a backdrop. Northup is kidnapped, taken away from his family, and becomes the property of a couple different slave owners. There’s little more to the story than that, with Northup’s journey being a regression – his spirit slowly breaking – and his surroundings eventually becoming interchangeable.

But the slight story is enough, the horrors of slavery made all the more real by seeing a free man plunged into that world. No, the men and women who were born into slavery weren’t any better off, but as the film depicts, they had little context by which to appraise the idea of freedom. As such, the hierarchy between slaves – those in the fields and those in the house – makes infinitely more sense, each having a specific experience wholly their own.

For example, Northup’s first owner, William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), isn’t the tyrant that his brutal overseer (Paul Dano) is, initially giving Northup a warped view of life as a slave. But the screenplay – based on Northup’s personal memoirs – goes on to make the salient point that a “kind” slave owner is still a slave owner. Ford, despite shreds of compassion, still thinks of Northup as his chattel, and doesn’t balk at the idea of selling him to a “slave breaker,” Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). Cut to the bulk of Ridley’s screenplay, taking place in the swampy hell that is Epps’ plantation.

As good as Ejiofor is in the role, Northup is more of an observer than a traditional protagonist, usually giving way to others – like Fassbender – to steal the show. Fassbender is nothing short of feral here, his wildly racist planter driving his slaves to the brink of their physical capabilities. But little in the film is more chilling than his relationship with his best cotton picker, Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), a young woman whom he beats and rapes constantly. When Epps’ lust for Patsey catches the eye of his wife (Sarah Paulson), his anger only escalates, leaving Northup’s will to live – let alone escape – in jeopardy.

Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography is gorgeous, as is Hans Zimmer’s theme for Solomon. But the picture ultimately becomes stuck in gear between epic period piece and art film, between the worlds of Spielberg and Malick. When McQueen lingers, for minutes on end, on a hanged Northup staying alive by standing on his tiptoes, it’s a tremendously powerful image. Seeing a handful of unaffected, institutionalized slaves go about their business in the background is even more horrifying. But coming on the heels of a distracting Paul Giamatti cameo, the scene’s impact is blunted, as happens on a larger scale when Brad Pitt enters the picture at its 90-minute mark. Pitt’s peculiar accent and his character’s serendipitous timing – in a story built on the opposite of serendipity – doesn’t help matters.

The film is wonderful in so many ways – Ejiofor, Dano, and Fassbender are terrific – but it just isn’t as cohesive or propulsive as it could have been. Some will admire its snapshot approach – heavy on atmosphere, light on story – but others will find themselves longing for some kind of character arc or narrative throughline. Since we’re never shown the implications of Northup’s absence from his family, “12 Years A Slave” is too self-contained to be considered an epic, but its majestic score and parade of cameos aren’t exactly true to McQueen’s independent, arthouse roots. As a result, it’s a piece at war with itself – one that could have been an all-time great, but instead settles for moments of greatness.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: October 18, 2013 (Limited)
Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Director: Steve McQueen
Screenwriter: John Ridley
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Garret Dillahunt, Paul Giamatti, Scoot McNairy, Lupita Nyong’o, Adepero Oduye, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt, Michael Kenneth Williams, Alfre Woodard, Chris Chalk, Taran Killam, Bill Camp
MPAA Rating: R (for violence/cruelty, some nudity and brief sexuality)