As I've noted here before, it's my sense that many a "serious" mainstream film these days --particularly around the subject of historical/semi-historical tragedy-- tends to be unfortunately presented as emotional pornography. There are too many movies that seem to artificially manufacture sadness, and that's a manipulation I really resent from my dramas - especially when they're dealing with real life events. Those stories isolate or quarantine suffering, catch it in a jar and zoom in on it in a way where the music swells up, a child cries, and the magnitude of the situation is reduced to merely a tiny part of the whole. Those familiar with the past work of director Steve McQueen should already know that that brand of drama is not in his wheelhouse. McQueen is an artist first, the sort that comes from a background of museum-traveling video installations and who has - through Michael Fassbender in Hunger and Shame - worked to dig through the psychological gray areas of characters consumed by largely self-imposed ritual and violence. Though some have lauded 12 Years as a step forward into a more conventional narrative by McQueen, I'd argue that part of what makes the film so successful is that it does not rigidly adhere to a fluid sense of time. Structurally, Shame and 12 Years are not wholly dissimilar. Both drift in and out of moments and find themselves sticking, trapped, in the memories that turn the most sour for our protagonists. McQueen likes to keep his viewers in a sort of very close third person, just outside of the head space of the characters, but with a visual language so precise we know exactly what we're meant to see, how we're meant to see it, and what the character - staring into the distance- is experiencing.
Where Shame brought us devastatingly close to Brandon's sex addiction, 12 Years a Slave draws its viewer into Solomon Northup's (Chiwetel Ejiofor) tortured servitude. The story is based on a little known book of the same title penned by the real life Northup, a New York-born free man who was kidnapped, separated from his family, and sold into bondage on the black market under a new name. Slavery is already a tremendous injustice, but for those coming to the film with little understanding of the risks and prejudices surrounding life outside of servitude at the time, the human trafficking scenes of Northup's capture and abuse will likely be revelatory. From there, the film details what must be sacrificed to insure his survival. When he realizes that his pleas fall on deaf ears and that his captors have no interest in the law, Northup does what he must to pass through the world. He goes into hiding, in a way, feigning ignorance, pretending he cannot read and write, not mentioning his knowledge, skills, status, or family out of fear (rightfully) that all of this will saddle him with negative attention from his white masters. In the early days, he fares relatively well. He finds himself indentured to Mr. Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), a man who, though certainly no hero, appreciates Northup's skills as a laborer and grants him asylum and preferential treatment. When Northup finds himself fed up with his abusive overseer (Paul Dano), though, all bets are off, and Ford transfers ownership of Northup to the mean-spirited and notorious Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a man who prides himself, disgustingly, as a "nigger-breaker."
Much of the film seems to be set around Northup's extended tenure on the Epps plantation, and McQueen lets the tensions run high. Epps is a leering, abusive master who turns a lascivious eye onto Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o), a female slave, and who delights in having the 'things' he owns cater to his every whim. He counts the poundage of the cotton they pick in the daytime and punishes them accordingly, then, in the evening, he forces them to dance and feign merriment as he yells commands at them drunkenly. It's savagery at its most uncomfortable, and Epps is matched in his cruelty by his cold, violent wife (Sarah Paulson), a woman who enters every scene coiled like a viper about to strike. She's aware of her husband's predilections and seething with a jealous rage, anxious to take out a sadistic revenge on Patsey when provided even the smallest moment of opportunity. The actors are brilliantly cast, and there's a livewire running between Ejiofor and Fassbender that makes their every on screen moment --at whatever the distance-- seem like merely a matter of waiting for the other shoe to drop. Fassbender is, predictably, frightening and manic, but this is Ejiofor's finest performance so far. He has a way of keeping the character's inner life alive in his expressions, and his countenance lets us see the layers of Northup's debasement. We are never meant to simply infer that something is painful, we are forced to experience it, to confront it, and to understand what it means when a human being is treated as an object, as livestock.
So, I braced myself for 12 Years a Slave, but I did not find its illustration of the torment at any point excessive or unnecessary. On the contrary, McQueen works to tell Northup's story in a way that feels far more organic than a great many of the cinematic band-aids, tearjerkers, and gold-tinged Technicolor bits on slavery to come before it. This is a quietly powerful film with a strange, somber beauty that strikes you at the most unexpected of times. 12 Years a Slave doesn't want your tears, it wants you to think and to understand the magnitude of the situation in a way that doesn't allow the camera to pull away, that doesn't succumb to false modesty or notions of common decency. Everything works, and as much as I may favor new, adventurous, experimental creative works as my Oscar front-runners and year end favorites, it's tough to argue with the significance and organized power of what 12 Years a Slave has to offer. McQueen has broken out of the art house and tapped into a caliber of "problem picture" the likes of which is rarely seen. We'll be talking about and teaching this film for years to come.