Thursday, October 17, 2013

12 Years a Slave

Throughout cinematic history, there's been an undeniable race problem that's run deep in Hollywood filmmaking, particularly when tackling the subject of slavery.  The grand global practice whose currents throughout America still run with a trepidation, a fear and a tremendous supply of guilt; it would be difficult if nearly impossible not to impose some kind of sermon.  In that respect, the immense impression of brute honesty, violence and degradation on display in director Steve McQueen's impeccably made 12 Years a Slave does more than a solid, it provides a lulling and masterful refrain to decades of Hollywood glossing over an aspect of a repugnant period in American history.  More so than anecdote to the Hollywood treatment (expressed from Gone With the Wind to last years' Django Unchained), McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley have adapted the amazing-purely-for-the-sake-that-it-exists first person novel written by it's real-life protagonist, one Solomon Northup, and made a searingly truthful, lived-in account of the horrors of slavery.  And if the utter and intentional lack of Hollywood spectacle and overt emotional manipulation marks the film a bit cold, a bit emotionally detached in the end, it's still remains an essential film merely for existing in the first place.

The film chronicles the titular hell of Solomon, a free black man in 1841.  He lives a quietly dignified life with his wife and two children, a gifted musician and educated in scholarly ways that were rarely afforded in that time period.  When a job opportunity arises for a circus show, Solomon finds himself shackled and shipped off to become a slave after a night of carousing and celebratory libations.  From the start, 12 Years a Slave shows itself to be a film unafraid to show the brutal honesty of the period and the film charts Solomon's course with a clear-eyed intensity that's becomes more and more terse as the audience continues down his path.  Solomon is played with an unerring dignity by Chiwetel Ejiofor in a subdued but tremendously alert performance.  The British-born actor has always been a strikingly alive performer on screen and if nothing more, this film should hopefully bolster his career outside the marginalized supporting parts he's skillfully but thanklessly played in recent years.  The immense integrity that Ejiofor hold at once strikes a committed chord, even as his character proves more to be an observer.

Time appears to nearly stop throughout 12 Years a Slave, the audience is unaware (and purposely made ignorant of the stretches of time) which in its own way works to persuasively suggest the unblinking and never-ending horror of its setting.  Solomon is first sold-- Paul Giamatti pops in as a slave auctioneer and rattles away de-humanizing lines of drag in a way only a performer like Giamatti can-- to a Baptist preacher named Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch.)  The day to day grind is documented with a punishing force, as the righteously bigot Tibeats (Paul Dano) lulls Solomon and his troops of any remaining humanity; the contrast between Tibeats and the more thoughtfully courteous Ford is jarring but remarkable in its verisimilitude; Ford treats Solomon with the kind of respect and dignity that charges the first half of the film with a sense of hope.  The reality of the situations ends, as it would, with the refrain that likability or not Solomon is still considered property and even he can't quite come to rescue the hero from one of the most harrowing scenes in the feature, an extended shot of Solomon hanging from a tree.  It's jarring, shocking and presented with such a life goes on blase ordinariness that's as artful as it is disturbing.  Cumberbatch for his part tackles the performances with aplomb and grace, even as the films episodic and keep-it-moving structure gives him little to do.

Inevitably Solomon can't quite be saved even though he gets loose from the tree.  He is sent next to the plantation of Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) whose introduction to the film is him rattling on about punishment to be expected to his property, it's scripture he pleads.  Epps, on the outset, doesn't feel terribly far removed from Leonardo DiCaprio's caricature of white male evil in Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained, but McQueen and Fassbender imbue a sense of real-world horror that counteracts any attempts at sensationalism or exploitation.  Epps is a brute-- violent, aggressive and frightening forceful. He's protective of little else other than his cotton crops and his favorite toy, a demure young slave named Patsey (played by the Kenyan-born Lupita Nyong'o; expect further awards talk for her later on this year.)  Epps is a scary dude, but Fassbender is a smart enough actor to never relent on the realities of the period, over the course of the film he richly and defiantly humanizes his loathsome behavior merely because he never appears to be judging it; the same goes for Sarah Paulson's fierce portrayal of Mistress Epps, Edwin's jealous and put-upon wife.  And yet the awful nature of circumstance never quite makes 12 Years a Slave the reported difficult watch; there's a bristling hopefulness throughout even the most savage of sequences and the film is lined with the undeniable polish that has the look of a film five times its art-house safe budget.  The gorgeous cinematography of Sean Bobbitt (Shame), the impeccable costumes by Patricia Norris, production design by Adam Stockhousen all contribute to the lived-in sense that 12 Years achieves nearly seamlessly.

What distracts this remarkably special and legacy-insured film is its distracting beats.  For a film so focused in the reality of its subject, the starry-eyed ensemble at times takes away the power of its meaning.  This is mostly notable in the late extended cameo appearance of Brad Pitt (who serves as well as the films producer) who walks on set (seemingly from a photograph shoot) and spurs the kind of overtly-written sermons that the film had avoided so urgently before.  It's not disagreeable, but enough to take out of the story, or into a different film of such that 12 Years appeared to not want to be.  Pitt's appearance in the end reads as a bit tacky, but so do extended character bits by Paul Giamatti and Paul Dano who trade in stock characters within their own wheelhouses to an effect that rattles the films clarity and reality-soaked sense of observation.  That is until its overly pat final sequence, a bit of a let down after the Homeric saga.  However, it goes without saying that the 12 Years a Slave is a worthy and necessary film to savor, perhaps more so admirably that passionately.  B+

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