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 earlier this year, 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-]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2013 Telluride Film Festival.