For all McQueen’s considerable skills as a filmmaker, “12 Years” would not succeed without Ejiofor’s incredible turn. In this day in age it may be hard to believe why a free man wouldn’t run for his life or fight to his last breath in Northup’s circumstances. 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.
Based on Solomon 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 immediacy.
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.
McQueen’s previous two films — “Hunger” (2008), which is about a hunger striker, and “Shame” (2011), which is about a sex addict — both also debuted at Telluride. And like them, “Twelve Years” is an extremely dark and disturbing work that will almost certainly resonate more with critics than the general public. But unlike those earlier two films, which received a grand total of zero Oscar nominations, this one, because of its larger historical canvas and the magnificent performances from its giant ensemble cast, will almost certainly resonate more with the Academy.
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.
A roundup of reviews of “Prisoners” after the jump.
A first-rate ensemble procedural with weighty themes to spare, Quebecois director Denis Villeneuve’s tense kidnapping drama “Prisoners” revolves around a familiar set of genre ingredients but lays them out with expert precision. Similar to Villeneuve’s Oscar-nominated “Incendies,” the director’s first entirely English language feature involves a high stakes investigation and a generation-sprawling mystery only made fully clear in its closing scenes, but the comparisons stop there.
With each successive revelation, Guzikowski’s brilliant script satisfies the necessary machinations while always flowing effortlessly from his vivid, multi-dimensional characters. That delicate balance extends to Villeneuve’s direction, which maintains a vise-like grip on the viewer without ever resorting to cheap shock effects or compromising the integrity of the human drama. Yet this is also a film that breathes, that knows it has the audience in its palm and can take time out for the kind of incidental, character-deepening scenes that usually end up on the cutting-room floor.
Jackman roars with a Wolverine-like rage and intensity in frustration at the ineffectuality of the police working his daughter’s case, but there’s an authentic, emotionally connected and anguished howl to his pain that he could never access with Logan. Like “Incendies” before it, “Prisoners” is emotionally draining as the family, the detectives and everyone involved is put through the wringer, but it’s an all-consuming ride that’s ultimately compelling, if not slightly exhausting.
As the plot twists multiply and tension mounts, the film reaches a climax that is satisfying without being predictable. Special praise should go to the sound engineer for a shrewd touch in the very last scene that brings the story to an absolutely perfect conclusion. “Prisoners” can at times be a hard film to watch, but thanks to all the talent involved, it’s even harder to shake off.
The ensemble is great across the board but Hugh Jackman gives what honestly might be his best performance as one of the desperate fathers willing to do whatever it takes to find his daughter. Jake Gyllenhaal is also perfectly utilized, carving out a law enforcement character caught between the robotics of the job and the emotion of the case. And also worth noting is Terrence Howard as the other father; he doesn’t get a whole lot to do here, but he makes it all count and, along with his work in “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” seems to be back on the right track.