Director Steve McQueen's third feature, "Twelve Years a Slave," screened for the first time Friday evening at the Telluride Film Festival with reviews so strong that its inclusion in this year's Oscar race appears inevitable. While extremely brutal for its depiction of mankind at its absolute worse, the 133-minute epic feels like the must-see film of the fall season, according to critical response.
Based on a true story, the movie tracks Northern-born free man Solomon Northrup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) and his kidnapping and bondage into slavery. The film received a standing ovation during its debut and, according to the reviews, there are at least five good reasons to see this film, which Fox Searchlight will open in the U.S. in October.
1. Chiwetel Ejiofor's performance
While his name doesn't roll off the tongue, the British actor has been turning out solid performances for much of his 20-plus-year career. He's best known for his parts in 2006's "Children of Men," "Salt" and "2012." But this is one of the few times he's been able to showcase his formidable talents in a lead role.
"The actor's expression alone conveys a wholly unique set of emotions, blending exasperation, fear and rage that intensifies with each scene," said Indiewire.
Hitfix.com declares, "Ejiofor makes history palatable as he captures Northup's desire to survive as well as his despair as the weight of his plight increases over time."
2. Breakout performance by newcomer Lupita Nyong'o
Variety calls Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong'o a "stunning discovery." Playing a young slave girl who has to deal with the unwanted advances of Michael Fassbender's evil plantation owner, Nyong'o appears to hold her own among a cast of impressive actors.
Born in Mexico, raised in Kenya and educated in the U.S., Nyong'o is a graduate of Yale's drama program and has already directed her own documentary about the treatment of Kenya's albino population. She is best known for her role in MTV's 2009 series "Shuga."
3. Steve McQueen's evolution as a filmmaker
Whether it's because of his background as a fine artist or the experience of coming to the American material as a foreigner, British director McQueen seems to have evolved his already impressive filmmaking skills from "Hunger" and "Shame" into a fully realized form in "Slave."
According to the reviews, McQueen isn't afraid to sit with the acts of savagery he's depicting, forcing the audience to suffer alongside the characters with long, uninterrupted takes.
Said Indiewire, '"12 Years a Slave" is a mesmerizing triumph of art and polemics: McQueen turns a topic rendered distant by history into an experience that, short of living through the terrible era it depicts, makes you feel as if you've been there."'
Adds Hitfix.com, "McQueen has no fear in depicting the true savagery thrust upon American slaves by their owners. He won't flinch in holding on the image, even if it's graphically disturbing. Slavery was an inhumane evil that McQueen refuses to turn away from."
4. Hans Zimmer's score
Veteran composer Hans Zimmer has been nominated for his musical scores nine times, nabbing the statue for 1995's "The Lion King." But he's never won for a live-action film, even though he was nominated for his work on "Inception," "Gladiator" and "Rain Man," to name a few.
Indiewire describes his score in "Slave" as "pulsating," while Variety says the score that "blends chain-gang clanging with those same foghorn blasts Hans Zimmer used in 'Inception' helps "amplify the tension."
5. Michael Fassbender as the ruthless villain
Michael Fassbender has worked with McQueen on every one of his features, from playing Irish Republican Bobby Sands in McQueen's debut "Hunger" to embodying the sex addict in the dark, depressing "Shame." Here he takes on the role of evil plantation owner Edwin Epps.
According to Hitfix, he "expertly manages to avoid making Epps one note. Instead of pretending there is some good in Epps, Fassbender and McQueen provide him a range of combustible madness."
"12 Years a Slave" will next appear at the New York and Toronto film festivals before debuting theatrically on Oct. 18.
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