I've said a few times recently that a certain film is one of those good films that I never want to watch again. Well, 12 Years a Slave takes the final prize for that crown. No film this year will come close to matching the intensity, dread and emotion I felt.
It's kind of ironic that the film begins with a phrase I usually dislike, "based on a true story". When I see that, I expect some wildly embellished story that only vaguely resembles the actual one. Here you can't shake the feeling that this is pretty much exactly what happened.
This is based on the experience of Solomon Northup in his published book, Twelve Years a Slave. Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free-born man living in Saratoga, NY, was a respected violin player. After his wife and kids take a job out of town for a few weeks, he's approached by a duo that offers him a job playing for a circus. After they arrive in Washington, D.C., Northup awakens after a night a drinking to find himself chained and sold into slavery. With no way to prove he was a free man, he's advised by others to keep his mouth shut, do as he's told, and not even let on that he's educated. He's forced to adopt the name of Platt as he's transported down south.
I never realized that it wasn't uncommon for a free man to be kidnapped and sold back into slavery. It's absolutely crazy to me, but in those times without papers or someone to vouch for you, there wasn't much one could do once in that situation.
He's first sold to William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), who realizes Northrop's skills and treats him fairly well all things considering. However, he butts heads with one of Ford's underlings, John Tibeats (Paul Dano). After one particular encounter, Northrop suffers in one of many scenes that's truly difficult to watch.
Northrop is eventually sold to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a slaver known for his ability to break slaves. Epps along with his wife, Mary (Sarah Paulson), are the living embodiment of evil. Epps has his eyes on Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o), a slave that consistently picks the most cotton, but his affection towards her doesn't go unnoticed by Mary.
Finally, Northrop befriends Bass (Brad Pitt), a Canadian carpenter working for Epps. At great risk, Bass is able to contact Northrop's family and they are finally able to get a lawman down to the plantation to prove who Northrop really is. I debated telling that part as a spoiler, but considering Northrop wouldn't have been able to write his account if he wasn't free again, you already know from the beginning what the eventual outcome is going to be. Trust me, it won't affect your feelings during the film either way.
12 Years a Slave focuses much of Northrop's experience on Epps plantation, as this is when you truly see the ugliness of slavery and their condition. The Epps' cruelty seemed to know no bounds. Already a drunk, Epps is a twisted person, but he's equally matched by Mary, who takes almost any opportunity to turn her wrath towards Patsey. You'll be shocked and appalled at that brutality of their treatment. There are several very graphic scenes that make The Passion of the Christ look tame. These moments are painful and agonizing to get through. I'm not exaggerating when I say this is the most physically uncomfortable I've ever been watching a film. You'll likely hear many people around you crying, and I defy anyone to not have a dry eye by the end of the film. It's conclusion is absolutely heart breaking.
This is a rated-R film and not something I recommend for the faint of heart. I was surprised to see many families with small children with them. It's an important film though, so if you have an older kid that you think that'll be able to handle the images, then you will want to consider taking them.
It's a good thing they got recognizable actors that you normally like to play these roles, or otherwise you'd hate them for real. I sometimes feel for actors that take on roles where they are forced to be so horrible, say the n-word and have to mean it. It must be very uncomfortable to them at first, but kudos goes to the whole cast for their performances. Paul Dano once again manages to play a creepy weirdo that you just want to see get the tar beaten out of him, and love it when it does. Paul Giamatti and Benedict Cumberbatch are are great as they always are. Alfre Woodard stands out in her lone scene. Fassbender and Paulson are also fantastic. Like I said earlier, they personify evil with their performances. I get this feeling that Fassbender is going to one of those actors that's always great, but slightly overshadowed by another performance in the same film. He's gonna deserve some hardware at some point for all these great performances. Another standout performance belongs to Lupita Nyong'o. Just her first major role, she shows that she's another actress to look out for in the future. However, this is all about Chiwetel Ejiofor. I've been a fan of his for a while, but this is finally the role that I think is going to put him up at the top of short list. Every scene he's in captures your full attention. There's one particular scene towards the end where he's just looking around, thinking, and it's so powerful. It is truly a commanding performance.
I think you're going to see many, many Oscar nominations across the board for this film. The screenplay by John Ridley is note-perfect. There's no throwaway dialog here. After just three films, Steve McQueen has proven to be a brilliant director, and this is his masterpiece. Every shot in the film seems to say something. He's gonna have hard time topping this, but I can't wait to see what he does next. Even the soundtrack by Hans Zimmer is haunting, and I was surprised to see that Zimmer did the music, as it didn't feel like one of his typical scores. It felt more like the score from a horror film, which this is in a way.
Because of what 12 Years a Slave is about, I hesitated initially to call it great. It feels wrong to call a film about slavery great, but that's what it is. Brutal, emotional and powerful, it's a film that's going to stick with you long after viewing. 12 Years a Slave is a flawless film that's masterfully acted, written and directed and completely unforgettable. I give it my highest recommendation.
5 (out of 5) Death Stars