Finally saw "12 Years a Slave." Ejiofor is a guaranteed nomination that overwhelms Whitaker's "Butler" and Michael B. Jordan's "Fruitvale Station" (haven't seen Elba's critically-acclaimed "Mandela" yet).
This is a serious film featuring a tremendously unsettling depiction of the horrors of slavery. The source material comes from a man who was able to return to his family after twelve years of torture. His narrative, while harrowing, ultimately results in a "happy ending." Unlike other stories which might have sensationalized aspects of the tale, director Steve McQueen takes a very reserved approach, choosing to let the story unfurl at a languid pace. He LOVES long, slowly paced shots, often intercutting scenes of breathless natural beauty with the worst human depravity. Here too, we see his claustrophobic tight shots, focusing attention on picayune details and literally getting into the face of his actors.
McQueen's third feature is filled to the brim with this trademark elements. He loves long shots without dialog, inviting the audience to appreciate the details that he reveals to them. Punctuated by Hans Zimmer's unsettling score, the stark, explosive sounds ratchet up the tension in early scenes while completely receding into the background for long periods.
Acting performances are uniformly good. McQueen has assembled a strong cast of rising stars and formidable character actors to tell Northup's story. However, newcomer Lupita Nyong'o is astonishing in her later scenes as Patsey, the object of Michael Fassbender (slave owner Epps') obsession. Fans of American Horror Story's Sarah Paulson will despise her as Epps' wife who transfers her marital discord onto the a life's worth of incomprehensible misery.
Those who have been led to believe that this film is a non-stop orgy of violence, be relieved. There is extremity to be sure, but much of the horror is in the banal racial hatred that bubbles as an undercurrent through the sometimes slow film.
In this instance, the pace works. I was thrown at times at how there were no concrete indicators of the passage of time. McQueen's choice to hop around in the narrative order added to the confusion and "discomfort" of keeping up with the story. But then I thought, "how confusing must have this time been in Northup's own experience?" The title of the movie tells us how long his ordeal was, but as Northup LIVES IT on screen, he has no clue. And because HE doesn't know, neither can we. We are trapped, wondering if the next atrocity will be the last or if there awaits even further horror.
McQueen's films have underperformed financially in the States, grossing less than $5 million dollars. This is a big risk. A period piece (ka-ching), with a sprawling cast (ka-ching) and an unflinching look at a deeply polarizing subject. If you're a fan of his previous work, you'll be pleased. This is still Steve McQueen. However, I think this film is his most accessible to date, certainly in this country. More than that, it's a story that deserves to be told.