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Telluride Review: Steve McQueen’s ’12 Years A Slave’ Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender & More

Telluride Review: Steve McQueen's '12 Years A Slave' Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender & More

Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” instantly establishes itself as the most unflinching of all slave dramas, which is to say, there is plenty of flinching, not to mention cowering and recoiling and passing out, thanks to beatings and whippings that arrive at roughly 10-to-15-minute intervals throughout a 133-minute running time. “Amistad,” meet the Marquis de Sade, in the form of slavemaster Michael Fassbender, who puts his victims through more tortures than Mel Gibson ever could have imagined for Jesus.

This revolving door of graphically rendered brutalities might feel like its own punishment if not for an array of astonishing performances that’s practically a one-stop Oscar-nomination shopping spree. At the film’s world premiere in Telluride Friday night, it quickly became apparent that leading man Chiwetel Ejiofor had moved to the head of the line of best actor candidates, with Fassbender and newcomer Lupita Nyong’o sure to contend in the supporting categories. Even those of us who aren’t Oscar bloggers should break out whatever mnemonic devices we need to immediately commit Ejiofor’s and Nyong’o’s names to the tips of our tongues.

’12 Years’ has a sex scene within its first five minutes, which will have some viewers sniggering that they wouldn’t expect anything less from the director of “Shame.” But there are no pleasures to follow for any of the characters after that brief undercover coupling in a crowded slave’s quarters. After that flash-forward, we see Solomon Northup (Ejiofor) and his family in happier times, as free and even privileged blacks in the north, before he’s kidnapped and transported to the South for a quick and easy sale. He pleads his case to captors along the way, who respond by pounding Northup each time he insists his name isn’t really Platt. It’s a classic wrong-man/mistaken-identity setup, although no noir ever required this many scarring prosthetics.

A parade of character actors famous for playing sleazeballs get to mistreat Solomon, starting with Paul Giamatti, and including Paul Dano as an imbecile sub-“master” who can’t stand the thought that there might be an educated slave in the midst. Transfers in ownership ensure that Solomon’s lot goes from bad to worse to worst, as he finally ends up in the hands of notorious “slave-breaker” Edwin Epps (Fassbender). Epps isn’t even the most villainous of the many detestable white people in the movie: that would be his jealous and bloodthirsty wife, played by Sarah Paulson, who makes Lady MacBeth look like Olive Oyl.

It may seem foolish to complain that a movie about slavery makes the white characters look bad, but John Ridley’s script certainly sees things in terms of black and white in every way, which means that all the Southern white characters are caught up in their own awards race for most contemptible. Paulson’s one-note beeyotch character doesn’t do the actress any favors, but Fassbender, in what could have been a mustache-twirling part, is utterly transfixing as the kind of guy who really does have a deeply emotional investment in manic racial sadism.

“Long-suffering” isn’t easy to play with layers, either, but Nyong’o—as Epp’s slave mistress, who actually manages to get privileges taken away, not added, for her sexual services—is a heartbreaker in every way. She’d steal the movie if it weren’t Ejiofor’s performance, but few actors could pull off the combination of dignity and torment he manages here. McQueen gives the actor a lot of dialogue-free long takes, including one close-up toward the end that’s content to study his face for what seems like at least a minute as Solomon considers the possibility that his last and best chance for freedom has ended in another betrayal.

Among supporting players, Alfre Woodward has one great scene as a gossipy, highly intelligent, exalted lady among slaves, and she makes you wish the movie had a few more character sketches like hers among the lashings. Executive producer Brad Pitt shows up in the last 20 minutes, looking vaguely Amish, and given that there hasn’t been a likeable white character since the opening minutes of the movie, it feels incongruous to see him suddenly come on screen and immediately give a speech about God-given racial parity. But by this time, we’re ready for the light at the end of the tunnel, even if his dialogue does seem right out of “Lincoln.”

Although Ridley sometimes writes his villains’ lines a little more broadly and obviously than needed, the overall mixture of period flavor with contemporary accessibility in the verbiage couldn’t be any better balanced. As for McQueen’s work, advance chatter had some wondering whether he had what it took to make a mainstream entertainment his third time around, but there won’t be much questioning of that after doubters see “12 Years a Slave.” It has the strokes you’d expect out of a studio picture but also some moments few other directors would have attempted, like an agonizingly beautiful sequence in which Solomon literally tip-toes his way through a near-hanging that goes on for several silent minutes. If McQueen could forge a career working arthouse moments into multiplex movies, that’d be a case of mistaken identity we’d be happy to live with. [A-]

Browse through all our coverage of the 2013 Telluride Film Festival to date by clicking here. 

“12 Years A Slave” is receiving rave reviews out of Telluride. Click on page 2 to read more of the buzz, which of course has the word “Oscar” being thrown around quite a bit.

Variety: “The first thing fans of McQueen’s ‘Hunger’ and ‘Shame’ will notice here is the degree to which the helmer’s austere formal technique has evolved — to the extent that one would almost swear he’d snuck off and made three or four films in the interim. Composition, sound design and story all cut together beautifully, and yet, there’s no question that ’12 Years a Slave’ remains an art film, especially as the provocative director forces audiences to confront concepts and scenes that could conceivably transform their worldview.”

HitFix: ” ’12 Years’ is a powerful drama driven by McQueen’s bold direction and the finest performance of Chiwetel Ejiofor’s career.”

FirstShowing: “Phenomenal. A profound cinematic achievement on every level. Filmmaking at its finest. Chiwetel for Oscar. It’s his.”

Hollywood Elsewhere: “Sad & ghastly as the story is, ’12 Years A Slave’ is a humanist masterpiece & a slamdunk Best Picture contender right out of the gate.”

Washington Post: “12 YEARS A SLAVE = Masterful rendering of intolerable cruelty. Standing O for McQ, Ejiofor, Pitt, Fass & stunning Lupita Nyong’o.”

Awards Daily: “Another powerful collaboration for McQueen and Fassbender. They make magic together.”

The Guardian: “12 YEARS A SLAVE (A-) is neo-brutalist, compassionate stunner, more Haneke than Hollywood, stand-outs from Fassbender, Ejiofor, and Nyong’o”

Indiewire: “More than a powerful elegy, ’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.”

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Comments

Bill Edmunds

I'm worried about the review's claim that Pitt plays the only likable white person. Having read Northup's memoir, I can tell you he had a deep respect and even love for his first owner, a man named William Ford (in the film played by Benedict Cumberbatch). Northup even said he would have willingly stayed with Ford his entire life if he could have had his family with him. Northup was keenly aware that Ford had grown up in a society that accepted people of african descent as being 'made' for slavery, and did not blame Ford for this sentiment, although he did ponder many times how Ford could be such a kind and generous man who did not see the hypocrisy of owning other human beings. Sounds like the film might not portray this character accurately. Then again, Fassbender's character appears to be an amalgam of two different characters, so I guess changes are inevitable.

Higher Value

I wish Hollywood was more careful and accountable about making these "Hyper Exaggerated -Sensitive Racial Movies". When they, (Producers/Actors) go back to the hills with their rich white friends, the regular white people go back to normal life, where there happens to be a lot super charged hyper racists black youth ready to bash "Massa's" head in.

james palmer

i didn't care to much for fruit vale station,but loved the butler.

Alan b

Haaaaa brrrere derrrrr

Alan B

Another phenomenal review: "All the white characters are depicted as villains, which is bad, except the one character who isn't, and he's incongruous." Fascinating insight.

Based on a true account

Why doesn't this review acknowledge that the movie is based on the true life autobiographical book of free man kidnapped and sold into slavery Solomon Northup? The white people you see depicted were real people not fictional characters, so complaining about their cruelty as some sort of disservice to audiences or to white people is bizarre. Also, I don't see you mention William Ford (played here by Benedict Cumberbatch) and his wife. They are white people in Northup's slave experience who maintain good conditions for their slaves and honestly want to be good people and benevolent slave owners. They are part of an unjust system and a bigoted culture, but within that context they are nice people. Northup appreciated Ford and his wife very much and praised them highly, unsurprising since his other owners were so awful and abusive.

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