When a director who never ever blinks takes on a horrific subject, a nightmare in broad daylight is the inevitable result. Welcome, if that is the right word, to the world of "12 Years a Slave."
Based on an 1853 memoir detailing the appalling experiences of Solomon Northup, a free man of color who was brazenly abducted and sold into slavery, this film intends to do more than tell us a story. It wants to immerse us in an experience, and it does.
Obviously, no film can re-create the unspeakable degradation of one human being owning another, but in making the attempt "12 Years" insists we feel things in a particularly oppressive way. This is impressive filmmaking, but it is not easy to take in.
British director Steve McQueen, working from a screenplay by John Ridley, has no intention of making audiences the slightest bit comfortable with this terrible story, no interest in putting in any special pleading to bend our hearts.
A former video artist who won Britain's prestigious Turner Prize for artists under 50, McQueen wants us to experience these horrors as intensely as he does, as intensely, if it comes to that, as Northup did himself.
Viewers of McQueen's previous films will not be surprised by any of this, by the unflinching way, for instance, it depicts the details of savage whippings the slaves endure. Both "Hunger," about the grueling hunger strike of the IRA's Bobby Sands, and
All three of McQueen's works also share a second element, the irreplaceable acting of
Before we get to Fassbender, however, "12 Years" introduces another exceptional actor,
Because the arc of Northup's nightmare is revealed in the title of both the film and the memoir, it is a special challenge for "12 Years" to involve us in specific ups and downs given that we know how it all ends.
Potent performances across the board make that happen. Whether it's established folks like Ejiofor, Fassbender and producer
Though Northup's memoir is strictly chronological, Ridley's screenplay shrewdly starts us in the middle of the story, with Northup well into his new identity as Platt the slave deep in the bayous of Louisiana. At night he shares a moment of desperation with a female slave that offers a kind of relief but ends only in increased despair.
Once "12 Years" has shown us this vignette, it is doubly shocking to flash back to Platt's life when he was Northup, a free man in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., with a wife and two children and an apparently steady source of income as a fiddler. "Stay safe," his wife says as she heads off to a multi-week job as a cook. They are the last words of hers he will hear for quite awhile.
A chance meeting with a pair of seemingly upstanding white men who offer him the chance of employment leads to a trip to
Except Northup, now renamed Platt, has no choice but to endure it. Especially disturbing is the casual but complete dehumanization he finds being a slave means, with slave trader Freeman (an excellent
Platt's first master, William Ford (the ever-present
Edwin Epps, Platt's next owner, is altogether different. A notorious and psychotic slave breaker, Epps, superbly acted by the fearless Fassbender, is the absolute ruler of a disturbing alternate universe of his own devising, one characterized by his alternating passion for and disgust with the slave Patsy (Nyong'o), his sexual chattel as well as the best field hand on his plantation.
Effectively shot by McQueen's longtime cinematographer Sean Bobbitt on several real Louisiana plantations, "12 Years" explores a number of odd corners of the slavery situation, like the slave Mistress Shaw (Alfre Woodard) who is married to the plantation owner and serves an elaborate tea on Sunday mornings.
Though he insists to himself "I will not fall into despair," this proves increasingly difficult for Platt as the unimaginable things he has to do to survive mount almost beyond understanding. Uncompromising to the end, "12 Years" insists on saying to us, this was how it was, deal with it.
'12 Years a Slave'
MPAA rating: R for violence/cruelty, some nudity and brief sexuality
Running time: 2 hours, 14 minutes
Playing: At ArcLight, Hollywood; Cinemark, Baldwin Hills; Landmark, West Los Angeles