12 Years a Slave (Fox Searchlight, R)

12-Years-a-Slave 75While the potential for violence is an undercurrent for the way every character in the film behaves, this isn’t a movie that dwells on it unduly, nor fetishizes it.

12-Years-a-Slave 500

I’ve written in the past about how the British visual artist Steve McQueen, the director of the acclaimed but little-seen movies Hunger and Shame, seems more fascinated with creating memorable scenes than memorable narratives; I don’t mean this as a criticism, as I am a fan of his movies and his directorial style. Both of the above-mentioned movies were co-written by McQueen, though, so what happens when he’s working from a script he didn’t have a hand in writing, and which is structured more like a classical narrative?

The result is 12 Years a Slave, which is based on the true story of violinist Solomon Northup, who was kidnapped from the north and sold into slavery, where he stayed from 1841 until 1853. The script this time was written by John Ridley, and in a lot of ways, it feels like McQueen served as a director for hire — if his past films are any indication, a movie of this sort is not the type of thing McQueen has historically been interested in. There’s a pretty clear narrative arc this time around, the score by Hans Zimmer can be overbearing, and it’s a big, glossy, Hollywood-looking period piece.

Of course, this edging toward the mainstream has already brought McQueen great success, with much more surely to follow — everyone’s been falling all over themselves for this movie since its premiere at Telluride two months ago, and at the time of this writing, it is seen as the most likely film to win the Best Picture Oscar at the ceremony early next year. And regardless of McQueen’s motivations for taking the project, it’s his directorial hand that makes it work. He long ago established himself as a great director of actors (and actors have to be brave and willing to really work when they take a role in a McQueen film — he’s clearly pretty hard on them), and the acting and characterization are what make the movie.

Solomon is played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, who we all know from anything from Children of Men to Love Actually, here in a performance that is rich and humane. There’s a huge supporting cast, and the two read standouts are Michael Fassbender as the plantation owner Edwin Epps, and Epps’ favorite slave Patsey, played by relative newcomer Lupita Nyong’o. The combination of the three above players get the film’s most memorable scenes, which, as I stated before, McQueen has a knack for. (He’s always been aided on this front by the sure-handed camera of his longtime cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, and this film is no exception.) Beyond individual scenes, Fassbender, a usual collaborator of McQueen’s who does the best of his reliably good work under him, really makes a convincing villain out of Epps — he never takes the easy route in his portrayal, and the character is no simple caricature or stereotype. He’s complex and well-drawn, and real-world evil.

Elsewhere in the cast, we have Brad Pitt, Paul Dano, Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Kenneth Williams, Beasts of the Southern Wild’s Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry; Paul Giamatti, Mad Men’s Bryan Batt, and a whole host of others. All of the above actors do good work in their relatively small roles (and all are actors I like, in some cases quite a lot), but the constant stream of recognizable actors in small roles sometimes serves as a distraction; since McQueen seems able to pull great performances out of everyone he works with, I can’t help but think the film would have worked better with a little less star wattage.

Much has been made of the violence in 12 Years a Slave, and some of that can be attributed to McQueen drawing memorable, visceral scenes — there are fleeting moments of Passion of the Christ-level brutality here — but I think the rumblings on that front are not serving the film well. While the potential for violence is an undercurrent for the way every character in the film behaves, this isn’t a movie that dwells on it unduly, nor fetishizes it; if anything, critics and audience members seem to be discussing the violence because the movie makes you feel it, which is something just about every other movie is terrified to do. People go to movies for escapism, right? Well, not always, and McQueen’s one of the best directors to entrust your two hours to if you’re not in the mood for simple escapism. | Pete Timmermann

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