Since world premiering at the Telluride Film Festival, Steve McQueen's "12 Years a Slave" has gone on to draw rapturous praise from audiences and critics, with the majority of pundits agreeing it's the one to beat come Oscar time. Still, as with any film, there are dissenters, and in the case of "12 Years," the bulk of critics who aren't hailing it as an outright masterpiece all seem to have the same beef to pick with the film: it's just too beautiful.
That sentiment is best expressed by The Village Voice's head critic Stephanie Zacharek, who in her response to "12 Years" (a film she dubbed as "a pristine, aesthetically tasteful movie about the horrors of slavery") wrote, "McQueen, who is also a video artist, has a superb sense of composition, and he always knows just how and where the light should hit. In an early scene in '12 Years a Slave,' Solomon, after being deceived and drugged, wakes up in chains, locked in some dungeon-like room. Contrasted with the inky blackness around him, the billowy white shirt he's wearing practically sizzles; small parcels of light glint off his iron chains, giving off a matte, dull glow. It's an image of great visual beauty. And it looks like art direction."
Both Indiewire contributor R. Kurt Osenlund and Reel Talk's Donald Levit echoed her sentiments in their reviews with the former writing in his review for South Philly Review, that "the trouble with the movie is McQueen is such a self-consciously artsy director that he lets his formal approach obstruct the message he’s trying to send," and Levit arguing "the cinematography itself is over-prettified and distracting."
At a luncheon hosted by Fox Searchlight Pictures in honor of their potential Oscar contender, McQueen explained his reasons for the composed look of the film during a short Q&A in front of a room of Academy members and the like.
"These plantations are quite astoundingly beautiful," he said. "And then you realize the most horrific things happen in the most beautiful places. It is quite odd in a way. But at the same time it's life. I'm not making a horror film. I'm not thinking to tell Sean Bobbitt [the cinematographer] to put a dark lens of everything. I can't put my filter onto this reality.
"I have to in some ways show the perversity in life. This is how it is. One has to show that as it is. I have to embrace the horror of it, just as much as the beauty of things."