Silver Screen: Twelve Years a Slave ****1/2
Artist turned director Steve McQueen is a chronicler of suffering. Both of his first two films, each starring Michael Fassbender, focused on the physical effects of men suffering deprivations. Hunger charted the slow, agonizing demise of political prisoner Bobby Sands as he wasted away from a hunger strike, while the followup, Shame, found the aching lack of feeling in the midst of the rampant excesses of its protagonist’s sexual compulsions.
Similarly, Twelve Years a Slave is a kind of catalogue of atrocities, but here McQueen has broadened his focus. The story follows one man plunged into the deepest depths of misery, but the relevance of his plight is less metaphorical and more directly representative. McQueen’s latest, most harrowing movie spends precious little time philosophizing or parsing out political disputes, focusing instead on the practical, visceral horrors of slavery. The result is a picture that’s as essential as it is overwhelming.
The film is based on the memoir of Solomon Northup (a fantastic Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man living with his wife and two children in New York in the mid-1800s. Solomon, a violinist by trade, is hired by two con men to play a series of concerts in Washington, D.C., but once near the Mason-Dixon line, he’s drugged, robbed of his identity, and shipped to New Orleans to be sold on the open market.
As the film’s title indicates, Northup will eventually escape bondage, but not for a long time. The audience knows this, but Northup does not, which makes the futility of his early efforts to escape all the more heartbreaking. He’s first sold by a slave trader (Paul Giamatti) to a reluctant master named Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), but a run-in with a local ne’er do well (Paul Dano, Hollywood’s go-to actor for damp-looking, loathsome cowards) forces him to be traded to a cotton-plantation owned by sadistic drunkard Edwin Epps (Fassbender), whose obsession with young female slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) threatens discord in his home, the burden of which will of course be borne by Patsey, Solomon, and their cohorts.
With its intense focus on the evils of a notorious historical institution, Twelve Years a Slave draws obvious comparisons to Schindler’s List. To refer to it as the Schindler’s List of slavery is fair, and does no disservice to either film, although McQueen’s approach could scarcely be more different than Spielberg’s. Twelve Years a Slave is a chilly, often distant film, which is both an asset and a hindrance.
McQueen was trained as a fine artist, and his onscreen compositions are formal and painterly. At times they almost seem too elegant for the stark subject matter— in the midst of some atrocity the camera may pan across a multicolored brick building or slide silently through impossibly green grass and capture a moment of vivid beauty that seems almost profane in the midst of such savagery. Yet these instances provide such contrast to the surrounding brutality that they often highlight the horrors rather than distract from them.
The beauty of the countryside in which Northup toils, shot with a crispness and clarity reminiscent of Terrence Malick, intensifies the cruelty of his situation. It’s a visual trope that underscores the recurring contrast of brutality among the sublime, one never more apt than in the complicated, wrenching scenes of Solomon interacting with Master Ford, whose nervousness and genteel manners belie how his lifestyle hinges on the buying and selling of human beings. The tacit question hangs in the air: Who is worse, the slave owner who believes his actions are sanctioned by God, or the one who senses the inherent evil yet forges ahead?
This theme emerges again and again, perhaps never so intensely as in the sequence where Solomon is put on the market by Giamatti’s slave trader. Solomon and his fellow kidnapping victims, among them women and children, are forced to stand naked in a luxurious parlor while they’re inspected by potential buyers. Despite the lack of physical violence, the dehumanizing effects of these agonizing minutes make for perhaps the movie’s most intense and awful scene, although there are several other worthy candidates.
There is a downside to McQueen’s cerebral, removed approach, which is that he at times seems to present these events to the audience rather than bring us into the drama. His depiction of physical horror is second to none, though the film’s dialogue often becomes a strange abstraction, the characters not propelled by the force of emotion and experience but simply pantomiming their way toward another exhibition of depravity. Twelve Years a Slave never risks sentimentality, but that’s a feeling closely, perhaps inexorably tied to empathy and compassion. Spielberg’s frequently derided mawkishness may result in some emotional manipulation, but that’s just the imperfect articulation of a real depth of feeling. You can say, too, that Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained is a far less serious film that provides catharsis through pop fantasy, yet it achieves a raw, blazing anger that sometimes eludes McQueen in his attempt to make an orderly presentation out of something so messy and full of contradiction and chaos.
But as is so often the case in art, and life, weakness and strength are inseparably interrelated. Twelve Years a Slave is not only McQueen’s best movie so far, it’s one of the few films of 2013 that should not be missed. The experience may not be pleasant, but it is rich and singular and horribly necessary.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.