Tuesday, November 12, 2013

12 YEARS A SLAVE Is Brilliant and Poetic Depiction of the American Nightmare

 12 YEARS A SLAVE Review:

- 12 YEARS A SLAVE is such a unique, in some ways unusual film, that I honestly wasn't sure what to make of it, exactly, upon leaving the theater. This sprawling tale of American Slavery doesn't feel at all like what we've come to expect from films dealing with this era or with this narrative. Director Steve McQueen includes absolutely no flourishes of Spielbergian grandiosity in his film. Instead, he uses long, unwavering takes to create a film filled with artfully-depicted brutality, and positively overflowing with a feeling of overpowering, existential dread. The mix of unfiltered ugliness mixed with lyrical, poetic storytelling (and some sprinkling of gallows humor - both literal and figurative) creates a movie that plays out like a waking nightmare for its protagonist, the sold-into-slavery Solomon Northup. The result is a film that's utterly engrossing and endlessly praise-worthy. This is a film that has literary depth and subtext, but that also crackles with memorable visuals and cinematic sweep.

Solomon is played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, and it's a career-making performance. Ejiofor brings a soulful, restrained dignity to the character that I don't think I fully appreciated until late in the film. I describe the performance in these terms because Solomon starts the movie as a free, educated black man - a man who enjoys a relatively decent and undeniably joyful life - with a loving wife, two young children, and respected in his upstate New York town as a knowledgeable and trustworthy builder. However, it's his hobby that gets him into trouble - his skill as a fiddle-player attracts the attention of two traveling entertainers who convince Solomon to accompany them for a few of their shows. When Solomon is deceived by the musicians, he suddenly wakes up in a dark prison, having been abducted, taken down south, and sold into slavery. And from that point on, he has to hide who he really is. Because all the things that helped him get ahead up North - his smarts, his eloquence, his education - are liabilities as a slave. In order to survive, he has to show restraint, hide his thoughts, hide his intellect, hide his rage. And that is what makes Ejiofor's performance so remarkable. We see hints of what's going on in his head - in Solomon's eyes. But only rarely is he free to say what he really thinks. The dichotomy between who Solomon was and who he is forced to become is absolutely jarring. Because the white slave owners view him as lesser, animalistic, primitive - so too is this how he must act. And Ejiofor pulls off this tricky balance - this performance full of subtle expressions and telling glances - with aplomb. His Solomon never fully loses his dignity or his almost regal-like aura of calm and wisdom. But it's not for lack of trying on the part of the slave-owners who want to strip him of his humanity. What's remarkable about the film is the push and pull in that dynamic. Despite all efforts to break Solomon, to make him the prototypical, subservient slave - it's just impossible. The guy is too smart, too resourceful, too full of life for that sort of reductive psychology to fully take hold.

As good as Ejiofor is, he's surrounded by a remarkable supporting cast that is filled with equally award-worthy performances. There's two additional turns that really stand out to me though. One is Michael Fassbender as slave-owner Edwin Epps. Epps is the second slave-owner that Solomon is sold to (following a stint with the kinder and more sympathetic Ford, played by Benedict Cumberbatch), and he's a monster. The violence and rage he directs at his slaves is indicative of deep-seated psychological issues. Further complicating Epp's mania is his lustful obsession with one of the female slaves, Patsey. Epps puts Patsey on a pedestal, routinely praising her as his best worker in the fields. He also routinely rapes her, sapping her soul and demoralizing her to the point where she is hopeless and suicidal. Epps' disturbing relationship with Patsey drives his wife (a great turn from Sarah Paulson) off the wall, and Patsey and the other slaves find themselves caught in the volatile couple's tumultuous relationship. Fassbender is riveting as Epps though. He's a thoroughly despicable villain, but also a deeply complex character - a strange brew of madness and rage. But he is also emblematic of the disease of the mind that permeated throughout the antebellum south. How was it, we wonder, that so many could condone slavery, or even sadistically take pleasure in it? Epps', as a psychological profile, is case in point. Fassbender does wonders with the character - scary yet fascinating.

That leads me to Lupita Nyong'o as Patsey. Similar to Solomon, she must outwardly seem subservient and appreciative of her masters. But in Patsey's eyes, we see the bubbling sadness and hopelessness. We see the remnants of youth and girlhood, which we see all but stripped away by Epps. And when Patsey is pushed to limit, when she can take no more, Nyong'o turns in a gripping, jaw-dropping performance when she, as Patsey, lets the emotions flow freely in a rare moment of open expression. She and Solomon are two sides of the same coin. Solomon's lived the life of a free man, and so knows what it is that he lost as a slave. Patsey has known nothing but slavery, and can't even fathom what life outside of it is like. Suffice it to say, Nyong'o makes Patsey into the film's unlikely star - a supporting character whose horrifying treatment under Epps shows slavery at its worst and most soul-crushing.

So many other great little performances are scattered throughout the film. I mentioned Cumberbatch and Paulson, who are both excellent. Paul Giamatti shows up briefly but memorably as a sleazy slave-trader. The great Michael K. Williams, of The Wire and Boardwalk Empire, also makes a brief but badass cameo. Another small but crucial role is played by Garret Dillahunt (whose presence reinforces my perception that the film actually has a lot of stylistic and thematic similarities to the HBO series Deadwood). Dillahunt does here what he does best - he plays a slightly crazy and unhinged guy who Solomon takes a big risk in trusting. Alfre Woodard is another iconic actress who shows up for a small but vital role, playing a favored slave who has grown quite comfortable with her status. Now, I've heard some criticism of Bradd Pitt's role as a Canadian journeyman who provides a crucial bit of help to Solomon. I thought that Pitt's freewheeling persona proved a good fit for the part, and he provides a crucial counterpoint to characters like Epps. Pitt's puzzlement at slavery helps to paint the obsession that men like Epps have with it as a sort of infectious disease that had taken root in the minds of the antebellum south. At the same time, what seems like simple sanity to us now was, in that time and place, the very definition of radical and subversive thought. Finally, I've got to mention Paul Dano. Dano is just the best at playing loathsome, weaselly characters who very much deserve the punch-to-the-face that they inevitably receive. He's played that sort of character a lot, but this might be his best overall variation on that theme since There Will Be Blood.

Thinking about Dano's character, and Fassbender's, and other aspects of the film ... there is something slightly, undeniably pulpy about 12 YEARS A SLAVE. I keep mentioning this when I hear people say they're not sure they can stomach the film. It is violent, it is brutal, and it is at times disturbing. But to McQueen's credit, it's also an incredibly entertaining film. That takes nothing away from the seriousness of the subject matter, or the emotional weight of the movie. But McQueen also doesn't shy away from giving his film style and atmosphere, and even a bit of over-the-topness. I'll say that the movie's best scene is a weird mix of darkly funny and oddly disturbing. In the scene, Solomon is all but left for dead, set to be hung, before the men doing the hanging are stopped before Solomon can be fully strung up. And so Solomon is left with his toes just barely touching the ground, straining to keep himself from strangling to death. Solomon is gasping, panting, flailing. And all around him - as McQueen keeps his camera still and centered - we see others, black and white, simply going about their business - paying absolutely no attention to the guy right there, in front of them, on the very precipice of life and death. It's a scene that goes from scary to funny to scary again, and it's a weird Twilight Zone moment that, in its own way, completely summarizes the entire movie in miniature. Because yes, this is Solomon's story, but it's also the story of a supposedly civilized nation that had become a country of brainwashed zombies, stuck in a purgatory-like state in which, somehow, this sort of atrocity wasn't worth batting an eye over.

And so the film does have that pulpy aspect, that dark humor,  and that slightly skewed aesthetic that makes it more than your typical Hollywood-ized history lesson. There are a lot of layers here. And McQueen proves himself, above all else, a great storyteller - not telling his narrative in a completely linear or traditional sense, but in a way that's incredibly gripping, yet different from what one might expect from this sort of story. He doesn't talk down to the audience, or oversimplify things. He uses flashbacks and flash-forwards to create a sense of disorientation, to reinforce that nightmare feeling. He uses long takes many times - fixing his camera's lens on nature, on faces, on images - to make us pay attention to detail, focus on juxtaposition, and soak in the emotion of a moment.

I also think that John Ridley's screenplay is worth mentioning. Ridley also wrote Red Tails - a movie that is full on pulp (whereas 12 Years A Slave is only pulp-tinged, I'd say), but also one that I don't think really telegraphed Ridley's full potential. I mentioned the comparison to TV's Deadwood earlier, and that comparison comes to mind when I think of this film's colorful dialogue - a sort of formal prose that lends a certain gravitas to the words that are spoken. The mix of poetry and vulgarity, formality and brutality, is in keeping with the weird dichotomies of the movie's setting.

The whole film, in fact, is one of dichotomies. Its central story is that of a worldly and well-regarded man suddenly plunged into a hellish life of slavery, in which it is assumed that he is sub-human. In this world of degradation and humiliation, Solomon is surrounded by brutal men who also regard themselves as god-fearing Southern Gentlemen. And then there's the absurdity that always strikes me with stories about slavery - the fact that the slaves that were so looked down upon were, despite that, so ever-present and such a constant and integral part of their owner's lives.

12 YEARS A SLAVE does not fit the template of what a big Hollywood Oscar-bait movie is supposed to be, and I think that's what makes it so great. This is a film that's genuinely challenging and thought-provoking. At times, I'd even call it an art-film in certain respects for the non-traditional ways that some of its key scenes unfold. At other times, I agree with the sentiment that it plays out almost like a horror film or a Twilight Zone episode - with an ordinary man suddenly thrust into a nightmare scenario that completely turns his world upside down. There's that noir-ish feeling of fate conspiring against him, of being trapped in a dark void from which escape is a near-impossibility. But when you couple that creepy vibe with the fact that this is real history - an adaptation of a real person's autobiography - there is, again, that dichotomy: of real-life-meets-unreality. Life as waking nightmare. A warped, backwards version of the American Dream in which, instead of upward mobility, a man is dragged from the middle class all the way down to the bottom, made a slave, forced to endure hell, as part of some mass delusion about skin color determining one's worth as a human being. 12 YEARS A SLAVE doesn't give you that swell of emotion and triumph when it ends. It's not a crowd-pleaser that sends you home happy, or in tears for that matter. No, the feeling you get at the end of this film is one of waking up from a strange dream. A dream that you pinch yourself to make sure that, yes, it was, in fact, only a dream. But here's the brilliance of the movie - this wasn't just a dream. This happened. That took a while to register with me. It took a few days for the full achievement of this film to fully sink in. But now, I can look back and recognize the unique brilliance at play here, and I can heartily recommend this film as one of the true must-see movies of 2013.

My Grade: A

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