Directed by: Steve McQueen
Produced by: Brad Pitt
Screenplay by: John Ridley
Based on: 12 Years A Slave by Solomon Northup
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor
Music by: Hans Zimmer
Cinematography by: Sean Bobbitt
Editing by: Joe Walker
Studio(s): Regency Enterprises
River Road Entertainment
Distributed by: Fox Searchlight Pictures (United States)
Entertainment One (United Kingdom)
Release date(s): August 30, 2013 (Telluride Film Festival)
November 8, 2013 (United States)
January 10, 2014 (United Kingdom)
Running time: 134 minutes
Country(s): United Kingdom
Production budget: $20 million
Box-office revenue (as of publication): $96, 603, 549
Aloha, it's Monday and having watching a movie already today (Francois Ozon's In The House), I now have less than a week of full reviewing left to do for 2013. I don't know if I felt this way before, this being my seventh year at this schtick and all, but this year there is a legitimate sense of finality at getting through this lot. Since the second week of January, it's been non-stop, and I think I'll be glad to take my off-season once it comes round and watch a couple of Dario Argento films. Before that, there's a task at hand, and once I finish this week out, as I mentioned, I'll be doing a bumper edition of my usual Review(s) of the Month, and then I'll proceed to work on this year's Hall Of Fame inductees for individual achievement and the very best of cinema, capped off by my 7th Annual Best & Word Of The Year for 2013. So, for all the latest and greatest in cinema, keep your eyes posted!
Today's film up for review is 12 Years A Slave, the third of the major contenders at this year's awards seasons (alongside Gravity and American Hustle, both of which I've seen), and the third feature film from director Steve McQueen, who made his name with his two previous features Hunger and Shame, both starring Michael Fassbender in the lead role and both, while essentially being dramas, containing the nerve-wracking, tightrope intensity of a genre thriller. Since release, the film has garnered widespread critical acclaim and comparisons to the likes of Schindler's List, which in case you don't know is now considered a canonical classic of cinema, and the likes of Diddy and Kanye West have expressed their support for the picture, so there's no shortage of praise here. However, much as this information is important to give you folks a picture as to the wider context of the piece, the thing is to go into a movie with an open mind for absolutely anything and see how you yourself personally react to the film. So, based on the memoir of the same name, story goes that Solomon Northup, a free negro from New York as a carpenter and fiddle player with a family, who after being offered work from two men, is drugged, kidnapped and sold into slavery. It's an easy premise to set up in a sentence, and it means we can get down to proper business, comprende?
Starting with the good regarding 12 Years A Slave, in my last review I praised the cast of American Hustle, but by jove the cast here are on fine form. In the lead role, Chiwetel Ejiofor is absolutely spellbinding. Director McQueen compared his work to that of Sidney Poitier, and it's a comparison that is not undue, given the weight and singular dignity with which he carries himself. His Northup is a proud man who goes through the most horrific degradation and base treatment, and not only does he make us feel every bit of his character's pain and suffering, but also the full strength of the human spirit. This isn't some showy bit of method acting: he just completely inhabits the part and carries us through the character's ordeal. Although there is the novelty factor of having all these great actors pop up in small parts (not dissimilar to the topically similar miniseries Roots), they all plays an appropriate role in the picture. Michael Fassbender Edwin Epps is an absolutely terrifying ball of downright viciousness, and even when he is not inflicting punishment upon his 'property,' there is always this palpable threat of potential violence around him. Furthermore, there is a perverse pleasure his Epps gains from the mixture of his extreme sadism with rampant religiosity, giving the character a sexuality of real horror. Similarly, Sarah Paulson and Paul Dano play their parts in the same vein, as does Paul Giamatti, whose curt and frank nonchalance towards these people who he dismisses as sub-human trade is frankly loathsome. Benedict Cumberbatch, as a foil of sorts to Fassbender's Epps, believably gets across the audience the self-justification that many slave traders would make about their 'property:' Cumberbatch portrays him as a fair and honest man who believes that biblical scripture justifies slavery, and Cumberbatch does it in such a way that it really stirs the pot into provoking our sympathies. Finally (for the acting front), feature film debutant Lupita Nyong'o is powerful in the role of Patsey. Never anything less than sympathetic, the three-dimensional depiction of the character not just as a victim of circumstance but a young woman, like Solomon, of great dignity, it wholly legitimate. Now, as you've gathered, I had a few things to say about the acting, now we'll get to the rest of the film. The whole mise-en-scene of the film, from the design to the makeup/hair to the costume departments steep the film in a believable world that, while we are removed from the barbarism of slavery, is familiar and real. However, where it gets interesting is the way in which it is shot by cinematographer Sean Bobbitt. The decision was made early on, rather wisely, to avoid the documentarian stylistics and instead shoot it on 35mm film in a widescreen ratio. As such, while there is such vile, putrid and nasty material onscreen, there is still a beautiful artistic sheen to the film reminiscent of great westerns shot in desert landscapes like Monument Valley such as John Ford's The Seachers and Sergio Leone's Once Upon A Time In The West. McQueen makes reference to the great Francisco Goya when talking of the cinematography, and Goya's ability to create monstrosity and give it a strange beauty is replicated here. Also, the fact that it is shot on film and has that almost extreme brightness means that we can almost feel the heat, grot and sweaty atmosphere of the film's world. Another praiseworthy aspect of the picture is the terrific score by Hans Zimmer. One of Zimmer's strong suits as a composer has been his ability to create these works of extreme polarities, and he's seemingly discovered another level of his brilliance. Moving from the quiet simplicity of a couple of strings to this percussive drumming mixed with what I think is synthesised brass instruments goes as far as sounding like an industrial tribalism to soundtrack snuff videos for war crimes. It goes almost as far as grindcore, and the mixture of that with moments of real aural serenity makes for some real juxtaposition. Also, earlier on I mentioned the merits of the cast, but they wouldn't have delivered these great performances if the film wasn't so good on paper. These characters, no matter how small a part they play onscreen, are given depth and three-dimensionality, making them come across as legitimate human beings. Furthermore, the dialogue is pitched just right, with some genuine insights and lines of real profundity ("I don't want to survive. I want to live"), but full of lively, engaging colloquial language between the characters, who are also jousting with the different regional and class dialects. It's a hard thing to capture this atmosphere right down to the way the people talk, and Ridley does this admirably. Furthermore, the film, while the plot unfolds in a largely chronological fashion, the overall structure seems to follow more that of an emotional structure. Near the beginning of the film when Solomon awakes in chains, I thought he was back on the plantation, but it's a moment of real terror when you realise this only the start of his ordeal. While the success of things like this also down to the disorientation of the montage editing, Ridley's screenplay props it up. Finally (and this is the real finally on the praises), 12 Years A Slave is a film of such power and magnitude that as I was sitting watching it I genuinely felt the sheer weight of the picture. It was uncomfortable, horrible, intense, nerve-wracking and emotionally wrought, and it takes the ability of a truly great director to make you feel this way, and I feel 'great' is a term that wouldn't be undue in the direction of Steve McQueen. As the film unfolded, I felt that not only was I in the hands of a man who genuinely cared about what he was doing, both as an artistic, social and emotional statement (compare the politics and the way it deals with race to something like Mandela, we're talking about a whole different world!), but that a master was in front of me bringing to life a real work of art. I went to see the film with my mother (who sat at various points with her hands covering her ears), which means that I don't get to sit through the credits, and as she was talking to me I was bound to the seat. When inquired as to what I was doing, I spoke, if it can be called speaking, barely audibly that I needed to take a couple of minutes to get up. After being asked what I thought of the movie, the most I could manage was breathing heavily while shaking myself off. Over the years, I have contended the opinions of the likes of Francis Ford Coppola, in that I believe every single year we get at least four or five proper cinematic masterpieces. Of the films from 2013, I have seen four masterpieces, The Act Of Killing, Rush, Gravity and Blue Is The Warmest Colour: I think 12 Years A Slave might just be number five.
Now, as with the case of the film's I rate as masterpieces, I don't have criticisms in the classical sense of the term, but different angles, because no matter how much I enjoy the film personally, I have to look at it with some degree of objectivity and say "hold on a minute." This is how I can say conclusively that Anvil! is more a masterpiece than Gone Baby Gone, or Toy Story 3 (once again, my favourite film in seven years of reviewing) is more of a masterpiece than any other film I've ever reviewed. While I think 12 Years A Slave is in an upper tier, there are wee niggles that I have to look at objectively. For instance, the story itself, at it's very crux, is not particularly original, being that of a man in extraordinary circumstances faced with insurmountable odds and it's being an issues movie could provoke the inner cynic. Finally, though I had no problem with it, I think that the depiction of the suffering of the slaves could be troublesome for a number of viewers. From my personal point of view regarding aesthetics, in order to get a point across in an issues movie, you've really got to push it, but one of two ways: the first, as Mr. Frank Zappa would say, invokes pushing the satirical envelope to absurdities, "sometimes the dumbest thing that gets said makes the point for you," as we saw in Django Unchained, or the second, which is to depict it baldly, bluntly confronting the audience with the sad fact that the truth hurts, which is where 12 Years A Slave goes.
Let's face it, those were poor excuses for criticisms, even if I have to acknowledge them from the standpoint of objectivity. As a whole, this is a movie of a consistently high standard from the get go. The cast, especially the lead performance of Chiwetel Ejiofor and the support from Michael Fassbender, are excellent, the whole mise-en-scene of the piece, particularly in conjunction with Sean Bobbit's 35mm cinematography, gives it a beautiful comparable to great westerns such as The Searchers and Once Upon A Time In The West. Hans Zimmer's score is another example of his brilliance, bringing himself out into newer terrains with his trademark minimal serenity mixed with this bombardment of industrial tribalism that is borderline grindcore, and John Ridley's screenplay is wonderfully balanced between being a part of something of great profundity, the juggling of colloquial and regional dialects, and a strangely appropriate plot structure gauged by the general emotional tempo. Finally, not many movies make you feel the sheer weight of its power like 12 Years A Slave. Steve McQueen makes you feel you are witnessing the work of a master taking you by the hand through this landscape of sheer horror which shows, while the truth hurts, it's wholly necessary for art like this to exist, to remind us of our capacity to commit evil deeds and of our ability to rise above and make way for a better tomorrow.
The Thin White Dude's Prognosis - 9.6/10
The Thin White Dude's Self-Diagnosis - Busy little bee (this movie took me five whole days to make my mind up on, great timing! Just kidding, I loved it!)