As tough as you might imagine a Steve McQueen directed film about slavery to be, quite frankly 12 Years a Slave is even harder to sit through than you’d expect. That takes nothing away from the immense power and incredible high quality of the movie, but especially in terms of the Oscar race, it bears mentioning. For as tremendous as the film is, it’s going to be too much for certain people. McQueen pulls no punches in telling the story of Solomon Northrup, and neither does the script by John Ridley. McQueen has always been a filmmaker that eschews the easy way, so having Ridley point him even further in that direction makes for an incredibly powerful experience. Told in a straightforward manner but without any escape from the brutality, McQueen is almost daring the audience to make it the whole way through. Luckily, he’s got a pair of exceptional performances to keep you in rapt attention. Both Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender are award worthy, while a whole host of supporting players come in and out of the film, all of whom do very strong work. If enough members of the Academy sit through this flick, I could see it potentially leading the field in terms of nominations (wins are a whole other story). That could be a bigger if than you’d think, however.
The title obviously doesn’t bury the lead. The film is an adaptation of Solomon Northrup’s memoir about spending a dozen years as a slave. Solomon (Ejiofor) is a free man working as a musician and living in upstate New York with his wife and two children when he gets involved with a pair of men who promise him a great opportunity down in Washington. They have ulterior motives however, and before long Solomon wakes up shackled and being told he’s no free man from New York but a runaway slave from Georgia. Solomon protests, but is beaten severely. Thus begins the soul crushing journey that will span over a decade. He’ll deal with masters that range from potentially kind (Benedict Cumberbatch) to ones that all seem alike (including Paul Dano), all the way to one named Edwin Epps (Fassbender) who seems like evil incarnate. Solomon will also find himself bonding with a fellow slave named Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) who’s caught the eye of Epps and drawn the ire of his wife Mary (Sarah Paulson). Survival is the name of the game for Solomon, even if there never does seem to be a light at the end of the tunnel for him. Through it all, he remains as defiant as one can be and still stay alive, right up until the moment when freedom reveals itself once again to him in the form of a Canadian abolitionist (Brad Pitt) sympathetic to his cause. This really is a testament tot he human spirit.
I can’t quite decide who’s better in the film, so I’ll cheat and say that Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender share top honors. If I had a vote, right now I’d pick Ejiofor as the most deserving candidate for the Best Actor Oscar and Fassbender for Best Supporting Actor. I’ll get into the likelihood of that later, but for now, I just want to wax poetic about them a bit. Ejiofor, giving his best performance to date by far, breaks your heart but also lifts your spirits by witnessing his will and determination. A lot of the performance is quiet and insular, but when his emotion explodes, you let it all out as well. He’s playing a good man in the worst situation possible, so you know you’ll be sympathetic, but the power of his performance is that you feel so deeply for him. On the other hand, the magic of Fassbender’s acting is that you hate him with a pure rage that you might not realize you have in you. This may not be Fassbender’s “best” performance (it’s still Shame for me), but it’s incredibly strong work and when he’s on the screen you just can’t look away, even when there are atrocities being committed. Personally, I didn’t go as wild over Lupita Nyong’o as many others have, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t excellent. She just doesn’t have that much to do. Nyong’o nails her big scene though, that’s for sure. Among the smaller supporting parts, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, and Sarah Paulson fare the best (especially Dano and Paulson), while Paul Giamatti and Brad Pitt are the most distracting, though the latter plays an important part, even if it’s essentially a cameo (though watch Oscar voters decide to still reward him with a nomination). Other players include quick appearances by Garrett Dillahunt, Dwight Henry, Scoot McNairy, Quvenzhane Wallis, Michael K. Williams, and Alfre Woodard, among many more. Everyone does their part, but Ejiofor and Fassbender really go above and beyond.
A good portion of Steve McQueen’s style remains in place here in 12 Years a Slave, though it’s clear this is a much more accessible type of project for him (though ironically it’s his most difficult to watch). McQueen favors long takes and a direction that’s never showy but always beautiful. From the cinematography by Sean Bobbit to the score by Hans Zimmer, everything is top-notch. McQueen challenges his audience to sit through Solomon’s hardships, with a scene involving a hanging and one involving a lashing really hammering that point home. John Ridley’s script is very good as well, though I’d argue it’s McQueen that elevates Ridley as opposed to potentially the other way around. They’re a solid pair, with the latter’s screenplay functioning more as a standard Oscar bait project would than what the former usually pens. If there’s a complaint or two to be had (and essentially what’s holding me back from giving the film four stars), it’s that occasionally the pacing stumbles, the final scenes are tonally at odds with the rest of the movie, and early on the notable actors pop up in a slightly distracting manner. Aside from that, this is brilliant work by McQueen.
What kind of Oscar potential does it have? Well, in terms of nominations I’d say a healthy haul is in its future. Assuming Academy members don’t shy away from actually watching the film, Best Picture, Best Actor (Ejiofor), Best Supporting Actor (Fassbender), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, and Best Original Score are all but locks. Best Director, Best Supporting Actress (Nyong’o), and Best Film Editing are one level down, with the other techs or another Supporting nod certainly possible. All told, double-digit noms are hardly out of the question. As for how many of those citations could turn into wins? Well, that’s a harder thing to get at right now, but I will say this…there’s a chance this movie could wind up shut out when it comes to wins. It’s probably unlikely, especially considering the accomplished technical aspects of the film, but it’s not impossible.
As powerful a film as I’ve seen in some time, 12 Years a Slave is a definite cinematic achievement, even if it’s not an overt masterpiece or an instant Best Picture frontrunner. Steve McQueen is 3 for 3 (though I’m not as wild about Hunger as most), Chiwetel Ejiofor/Michael Fassbender are in line for their first Oscar nominations, and the movie lives up to the hype. Where it goes from here remains to be seen, but if you’re only worried about if it’s a high quality endeavor, fear not. This is easily one of the five best things I’ve seen in 2013 to date.
–Thoughts? Discuss in the comments! You can also read the Editor’s 4-star review here.