Like countless movies before it, "12 Years a Slave" opens with a title card announcing that its material is based on a true story. However, Steve McQueen's startlingly realized period drama justifies its introductory note with each ensuing scene, recreating the experiences of a free black man kidnapped and sold into bondage at the tail-end of slavery in America so effectively that it's almost not a movie in traditional terms; instead, the plight of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) plays out like a poetic record of persecution. Initially a settled family man living in New York, Northup eventually faces one bleak reality after another like an accidental war journalist dropped into the center of the trenches, and we're right there with him.
Based on Northup's 1853 bestseller, "12 Years a Slave" owes much to Ejiofor's knockout performance. But it's a particularly noteworthy advancement in McQueen's already impressive filmography, as it funnels the cerebral formalism of his earlier features (the prison strike drama "Hunger" and the sex addict portrait "Shame") into a deeply involving survival narrative. As a result, "Slave" injects its topic with remarkable immediacy.
The spoiler's right there in the title, so McQueen wastes no time establishing Northup's conundrum, finding the solemn man living a hard life of labor picking cotton with his fellow slaves and vainly attempting to retain some modicum of hope. From there, the movie flashes back to 1841, when Northup lives a happy life in Saratoga with his wife and two young children, playing the violin at high society gatherings and seemingly removed from hardships down south. That changes quickly when a pair of men hire him to play a gig in Washington D.C., take him out for drinks ostensibly to celebrate and promptly drug him. Awaking in chains, he's suddenly forced to adopt a new identity as "Platt" and told by the first of many cruel-eyed white men that he's an escaped Georgia runaway. It's here that "Slave" kicks into high gear, using the full powers of film language to convey the despair that eventually consumes Northup's surroundings.
There are echoes of the paranoid urgency and claustrophobic McQueen memorably built around a single setting in "Hunger," but "Slave" carries them to a grander emotional scale. As Northup is thrust on to a boat with other frantic new captures, Hans Zimmer's pulsating score compliments an intense montage of whispered exchanges between Northup and the other prisoners. The strength of the images shot by cinematographer Sean Bobbitt ("The Place Beyond the Pines"), first glimpsed in the prologue, provide an intricate clash of colors -- from the sharp blues of the surrounding ocean to the murky shadows of the ship's belly.
The overload of sights and sounds efficiently sets up the stakes at hand, with Northup struggling to adapt to a new set of rules: More experienced slaves tell him to remain mum about his literacy, keep his head down and follow each awful new order. But Northup, a prideful man with education and culture to spare, holds tight to a spirit of defiance. "I don't want to survive," he asserts. "I want to live." That's just the prelude to a movie in which Northup's valiant convictions get tested again and again.
Though certainly heavy on plot, John Ridley's screenplay gets swept up in Northup's subjectivity, so that rather than being led from one development to the next you're forced to process each revelation about his new environment along with him. It doesn't take long for Northup to see the extremes of his captivity: At shore, he's pushed into a slave auction by a ruthless merchant (Paul Giamatti in one of several bit parts that play less like stunt casting than a reflection of attentiveness to detail); upon arrival, Northup is tasked with playing the violin to drown out the cries of a woman pulled apart from her children as they're sold to a separate client.
The challenges get worse from there: While lucky enough to find some modicum of kindness in a levelheaded new owner (Benedict Cumberbatch), Northup runs into trouble from an envious white overseer (Paul Dano, one-upping the unlikable qualities of his preacher in "There Will Be Blood" with a far slimier creation) who resents Northup's measured intelligence. Their repeated showdowns provide the first test of Northup's ability to withhold his anger toward the system and everybody responsible for putting him in it.