The more I see of his work, the more I find myself with two key thoughts regarding director Steve McQueen. On the one hand, I think he's a good director - actually, that's selling it short. I think he's a great director and give him some serious points for being among the few out there who can still tell the stories they want their way in a system where that's a regular uphill battle. There's not many directors out there that would be allowed to get away with something like, for a good example, the 17-minute single shot conversation in Hunger, but McQueen not only did it, but carried it off like a master. On the other hand, and in something of a tradeoff of his being able to tell the stories he wants to...well...damn. They're very good, but also very unpleasant to sit through at times. I commend him for this, to be perfectly honest - the willingness to tell something that won't necessarily be a feel good story, but you still think is one that needs to be told I think is admirable, but it tends to mean seeing it once is usually more than enough. Those images will stay with you whether you want them or not, which is both a good thing, and something of a drawback, depending who you ask.
Fortunately, this allowed me to brace for it somewhat on seeing his latest project, 12 Years a Slave. Based on the autobiography of the same name, the film concerns the story of one Solomon Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor,) a free black man who, under the pretense of performing for a traveling show, was kidnapped and sold into slavery. As the title suggests, he lived as such for over a decade before finally being able to tell anyone who believed him and escape.
With subject matter like that, you can already see what I mean about this being a hard film to watch. Slavery is a tricky topic to address in film, largely thanks to the temptation to soften the edges for a greater audience appeal. Being one for running on his own terms, McQueen doesn't pull away at any point, and the film is a stronger piece for it. Even from the get-go, the movie makes it clear what you're in for, actually starting with a brief sequence of some of Solomon's life as a slave before flashing back to show us the man he once was and how he got there. It really helps further hammer home one of the key elements the film doesn't want you forget - despite what the culture of the time said, these were people who were taken, often against their wills, denied their lives and histories, and worked in brutal conditions. We don't linger long on Solomon's life as a free man, but we see enough of it to appreciate what he's taken away from. It's a small piece of the overall film, but still vital.
The rest of the narrative is, as I said before, a very frank look at the industry of slavery. From Solomon's kidnapping on, we're treated to the entire process by which slaves were essentially dehumanized, sold, and broken down on plantations. One of the other small pieces that really caught me here is actually shortly after Solomon's kidnapping. We see him talking with another kidnapped free man, while the third member of their group had been born into slavery. The difference in psychology they show compared to this third man is both sad and horrifying, moreso when one remembers how common practice this was back then. Once sold, we see Solomon under the care of two different masters with two different temperaments (played by Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Fassbender respectively.) Successfully achieving another of the trickier balances in slave film, McQueen actually handles the contrast between these two with a surprising amount nuance. Cumberbatch's Mr. Ford could have been made into the archetypal 'nice master,' with all the problems that the cliche brings with it. Instead, while the film does show him as somewhat more benevolent, it does still remind us that, benevolent or not, he IS part of the slave industry. Further, in that culture, his benevolence is treated as a sort of weakness. Even when Solomon runs afoul of one of Ford's workers (played by an appropriately weasley Paul Dano,) Ford does not protect him, and sends him to another plantation. The other plantation...well, as Ford is the benevolent, if powerless, side of slavery, Fassbender's Epps is the harsher side of the culture. This in particular is where the film's harsh edge hits hardest, most especially with a subplot involving another slave, Patsy (Lupita Nyong'o) who has been the recipient of Epps's affections - earning the ire of his jealous wife (Sarah Paulson.) Epps runs his plantation with a mindset of force and 'breaking' the slaves, and this mentality is ingrained in all the years Solomon spends on the Epps plantation. The one area where the narrative hits a bit of a setback, and this is still a fairly minor one, is with regards to Solomon's finally escaping, with the help of an abolitionist working on the plantation. It's not even that the scene is badly written or directed, it's rather the decision to cast Brad Pitt (who helped produce the movie) as the abolitionist. Much of the rest of the cast, as I will go into shortly, are well suited and blend into their parts well. Pitt, meanwhile, is really just Pitt in period costume. It doesn't ruin the movie, but it is a bit of an awkward element in an otherwise strong movie, though one the film thankfully recovers from in its finale. Said finale further dodging some potential cliches in its own way - while McQueen doesn't completely shut down the happiness that comes from Solomon's reunion with his family, he also makes it a point to remind us, both with text, and with a haunting scene as Solomon is being taken away from the plantation, that he is one of the lucky ones-The very few lucky ones. We feel some relief that he is free again, but are also reminded that slavery and the brutality on that plantation will continue, and many others will suffer even after his suffering ended.
This isn't to say McQueen is the only strong aspect of this movie. As I've mentioned some above, the cast are phenomenal with the possible exception of Pitt. In the lead role, Ejiofor has a lot to take on in this part. As far as how he did, I find myself agreeing with the other critics who have said that the next Best Actor Oscar is all but his to lose at this point. As much as McQueen's direction, much of this movie hinges on Ejiofor's performance, and luckily he can support the weight. Probably some of his strongest moments aren't even in his dialogue delivery, but in pure expression. The amount of emotion he can put into just his demeanor and face in any given scene is impressive, such as at the end of the film when he is first reunited with his family. The scene itself is fairly light on dialogue, but the rush of emotions that Ejiofor conveys rushing to him are downright heartbreaking. For a scene that is, within the overall theme of the movie, a fleeting moment of happiness, however bittersweet, he makes it shine. The other standout in the cast has to go to Fassbender, continuing his running work with McQueen, this time in yet another role that shows his versatility. This time around, he delivers a strong, but incredibly disturbing performance. Like I said above, his mentality is driven by use of force, and he embodies that well. Epps is a ruthless, brutal person, and Fassbender doesn't let up. While I'm not sure I'd call him as definite in the running for Best Supporting as Ejiofor is for Best Actor, he is certainly a strong contender. From there, much of the rest of the supporting cast hold up their parts very well. Probably one of the strongest in this regard goes to Nyong'o, who is downright heartbreaking in her role as Patsey. It's one of those roles that you don't expect to stand out at first, but as her story progresses, one can't help but be both impressed for her and feel bad for her character. In particular, the climax of her story (which I won't reveal much here) takes the prize as one of the most uncomfortable moments I've had in a theater to date. From there, Cumberbatch's turn as Ford is arguably the best work I've ever seen from him, and convinced me he is capable of range after all. Paul Giamatti, in a smaller part, still manages to stand out in his brief role as a slave trader - a mix of being both watchable in his sales pitch, and utterly despicable in just what he's selling. Also of note, and as a rather welcome surprise, the film brings back the two leads of last year's Beasts of the Southern Wild - Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry in two supporting roles. They don't have major parts, but it is a very nice surprise to see the two back again, as they're both very promising as new talent.
It's actually kind of funny in a way. For as hard as this movie is to watch - and I'm not exaggerating when I say I'd have a hard time see this again anytime soon, there is still a LOT I could say good in its favor. Its very hard subject matter to work with, and McQueen handles it deftly, providing nuance while also not softballing one of the darker periods in America's history. Pair his ambitious, unique vision with a phenomenal cast, and I don't mind saying right now this is currently my pick for the best movie I have seen this year. Granted, we're still getting into the 'big guns' time of year, but this has already set the bar very high.
Well, I managed to do one of these without resorting to cheek. I guess it CAN be done.
...OK, besides that.
Keep an eye out tomorrow, as week 3 of MST3k month continues. It's been a pretty fun month for that.
God, I feel wrong invoking 'fun' with this movie.
Till next time!