Friday, November 8, 2013

In Theaters: 12 YEARS A SLAVE (2013)

(US/UK - 2013)

Directed by Steve McQueen.  Written by John Ridley.  Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Alfre Woodard, Sarah Paulson, Lupita Nyong'o, Scoot McNairy, Taran Killam, Garret Dillahunt, Adepero Oduye, Michael Kenneth Williams, J.D. Evermore, Andy Dylan, Kelsey Scott, Quevenzhane Wallis, Bill Camp, Chris Chalk, Tony Bentley, Christopher Berry, Liza J. Bennett.  (R, 134 mins)

Solomon Northrup's 1853 memoir is adapted into a typically brutal and unflinching offering from British filmmaker Steve McQueen, who previously gave us the similarly harrowing hunger-strike chronicle HUNGER (2008) and the NC-17 sex addiction drama SHAME (2011).  McQueen has already made his mark as a noteworthy modern filmmaker, but 12 YEARS A SLAVE shows he can make a commercial, mainstream film without watering down his pursuit of graphic and ugly realism.  This is a gut-wrenching, upsetting, and horrifying film, and arguably the most unblinking, in-your-face depiction of slavery that you're likely to see.  It's not hyperbole to compare it to SCHINDLER'S LIST as the final cinematic word on a specific subject. 

Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as Northrup, a free black man in 1841 Saratoga, known and respected throughout the community as a violinist, artist, and family man.  When his wife is out of town with their two children, Solomon meets two circus performers (Scoot McNairy, Taran Killam), who talk him into taking a lucrative gig in Washington, D.C.  They get him drunk and he wakes up chained in a room.  Rechristened Platt, Solomon is taken to Louisiana and sold to plantation owner William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch).  Ford is a slave owner, but is relatively kindly, and respects "Platt" for his obvious intelligence and his construction skills after he takes charge of devising a more efficient waterway transport for him.  This angers Tibeats (Paul Dano), a sadistic Ford plantation overseer who tries to lynch Platt after starting a fight with him and embarrassingly losing.  Realizing he can't have Platt and Tibeats working together, Ford transfers the debt of Platt's acquisition to cotton plantation owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender, who starred in HUNGER and SHAME).  Epps and his wife (Sarah Paulson) are a monstrous couple, abusive to their slaves, whipping them if they fall short of the 200 lb/day cotton quota.  Epps has also been forcing himself on slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o), which causes her to be a constant target of Mistress Epps' jealous rages.  Before arriving at Epps' plantation, Solomon/Platt repeatedly tries to explain that he's a free man, but it only gets him into trouble, as does his inability to stand idly by while those around him are being treated so unjustly.

Working from a script by John Ridley (THREE KINGS, UNDERCOVER BROTHER, RED TAILS), McQueen pulls no punches with 12 YEARS A SLAVE.  The language and imagery are harsh, as they should be (Patsey is given the most vicious whipping this side of THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST).  It's hard not to get angry as Solomon is let down by nearly everyone:  the circus performers (it's odd to see SNL standout Taran Killam as one of the film's chief villains), people in positions of power who won't listen to him, even the kindly Ford, who cares about Platt to some extent but still puts profits before the slave's well-being.  When Platt pleads with Ford to not give him to Epps and starts to explain that he's a free man from Saratoga, Ford can only say "I don't want to know."  When Solomon/Platt is sold to the Fords along with Eliza (Adepero Oduye), a single mother who has her two children taken away from her by a cruel slave trader (Paul Giamatti), Eliza can't stop crying, and Ford's wife (Liza J. Bennett) brushes her off with "Get some sleep and some food and you'll forget those children soon enough."

12 YEARS A SLAVE features career-best work from Ejiofor, and Fassbender, who should've gotten Oscar nods for both HUNGER and SHAME, turns in yet another performance that demonstrates he's one of the best actors at work today.  Where most directors handling a subject like this would have the villains played as cackling moustache-twirlers, McQueen makes them ugly and real.  Fassbender and Paulson create one of the most loathsome screen couples in ages.  I also liked what McQueen did with Cumberbatch's Ford, presenting him as conflicted about his feelings but still cynically putting himself and his money first.  There's a number of familiar faces in smaller roles:  Alfre Woodard as a former slave who pragmatically became a plantation mistress; Michael Kenneth Williams (BOARDWALK EMPIRE's Chalky White) as a too-small bit as a rebellious slave; and Brad Pitt as Bass, a Canadian carpenter who warns Epps that the slave owner's day of reckoning is coming.  Difficult to watch and impossible to forget, 12 YEARS A SLAVE suffers from occasionally stilted dialogue but is otherwise masterful moviemaking and one of the year's best films.

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