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.
Faced with the daunting task of imbuing a remote dilemma with realism, Ejiofor matches McQueen’s filmmaking skill. The actor’s expression alone conveys a wholly unique set of emotions, blending exasperation, fear and rage that intensifies with each scene. McQueen gives his talent the same room to breathe that he does the story, peppering the movie with patient long takes that often build into exceptional set pieces: In one near death encounter, Northup stands on his tip toes with a noose around his neck, gazing and gasping at the surrounding plantation while the minutes crawl by. Later, at a funeral for a fallen slave, his fellowmen deliver a moving rendition of the cotton field staple “Roll, Jordan, Roll,” and McQueen’s camera presses in on Ejiofor’s face as the man gradually joins in. The scene effectively completes Northup’s transformation into the role of victim that he initially resisted. With his slow-burn approach, McQueen makes the air of defeat into an unnervingly visceral encounter.
The technique serves to elaborate on the decade-plus period covered over the course of the movie’s 133 minutes. During that passage of time, the mounting sense of dread never lets up. At the one-hour mark, Northup finds himself on the plantation of depraved slave owner Edwin Epps (a convincingly monstrous Michael Fassbender), whose harsh antics provide the ultimate threat to Northup’s stamina. While there are hints of tension between Epps and a neighboring white man, the script largely sweeps aside the specifics of the drama in favor of generalities that foreground the vividness of Northup’s emotional turmoil.
On Epps’ planation, the slave encounters a suicidal woman (newcomer Lupita Nyong’o) subjected to virtually every form of abuse, which places Northup’s desperation in the context of tragedies even deeper than his own. With the horrible finality of scenes where he witnesses other slaves meet worse fates — whips and nooses figure prominently in the plot — Northup takes on the role of spectator in a drama that predated his arrival.
It’s all so credibly enacted that once Brad Pitt (whose Plan B productions produced the film) arrives in a bit part as a kind-hearted Canadian who visits the plantation and speaks out against slavery, the character’s messianic qualities seem like a bit much. Yet by the time we get there, it’s hard not to plead for an end to Northup’s battle. 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.
Criticwire grade: A+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Well-received at Telluride, Toronto and New York Film Festival, “12 Years a Slave” has generated so much anticipation that it’s guaranteed a strong opening weekend. As distributor Fox Searchlight opens the movie in more markets, it may suffer to some degree from grim expectations, but should remain strong given the word of mouth. Ejiofor is a lock for Best Performance in the Oscar race, as is McQueen and his movie.
A version of this review ran during the Telluride Film Festival.