There's a moment in Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained where King Schultz (Christophe Waltz) is sitting alongside a harpist. As her delicate fingers pluck that timeless Beethoven composition, the music forces him to access the very recently suppressed memory of watching Mandango slave D'Artangnan torn to pieces by rabid dogs. Tarantino gives you unexpected flashes of that heinous act; conversely director McQueen calmly composes the inhumanity of people as property and forces you to soak in the despair.
Unflinching, excruciating direction from McQueen; arresting and affective performances from Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong'o & Michael Fassbender; John Ridley's adaption of this shamefully true story is epic; 12 Years a Slave is extraordinary.
Solomon Northup (Ejiofor) is a musician living in Saratoga, New York with his wife Anne (Kelsey Scott), and children Alonzo and Margaret (Quvenzhané Wallis and Cameron Zeigler). What's more is that he's a free man in pre-Civil War America. Lured to Washington under the false pretence of auditioning for a performance as part of circus, Solomon is kidnapped, given the identity of a Georgian slave 'Platt' and illegally shipped to the South.
Ejiofor is an engaging and charming performer. McQueen takes him to the darkest recesses of his soul while he's enduring Solomon's ordeal. It's a performance riddled with the contradictory impulses. There's a civility and merit in the presence of his first master Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) while navigating the shifting tectonic plates of barked commands of sadistic yard hand Tibeats (Paul Dano). Fellow slaves like Adepero Oduye's Eliza drift into crippling melancholia and Solomon must turn off his empathy. Ejiofor draws you into to this excruciating ordeal, his body is weary but eyes are continue to foster the light of hope, even as he's faced with the poles of compassion and convulsion of being asked to put someone out of their misery.
If Ejiofor's Solomon must battle with the earth shifting beneath his feet, it's Fassbender's slaver Edwin Epps that's the molten rock. Caught between greed and the piety of perverted scripture, Epps is a horrific collection of hair-trigger base impulses. If you're in favour, you'll escape a beating, but being his 'favourite' may mean ritualistic rape. Epps is continuously taunted by his wife Mistress Epps played by Sarah Paulson. Equally heinous, and disgusted by the favour her husband grants Patsey, she's his audience demanding blood when their 'property' doesn't do what it's told.
Nyong'o as Patsey is the performance that will truly blow you away. It's one of near contentment surviving in the good graces of a monster — until she's infected by how overt that favour is in the eyes of Mistress Epps. You're forced to experience the the life threatening isolation of being in 'favour.'
McQueen can make you feel the abjection of slavery. His shot composition and staging is so beautifully still that he encourages the action to unfold in the frame. It's visual endurance, it's beautifully composed abhorrence that fills each shot with the amorality of people being reduced to property. Particularly a moment in Solomon's ordeal where he's hanging from his neck with his only respite is that his toes McQueen lets time lapse for hours upon hours and his fellow slaves continuing to go about their lives. Children play, chores are done; survival devalues all the life around you.
However there are moments that McQueen and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt makes you feel the movement of the characters or places you in the flux of a scene it exponentially adds to the disorientating fear of the ordeal. In one scene, Solomon (Ejiofor) considers making a run for it through the forest - instead of fluidly lolling behind a man bolting for freedom, the camera stutters, it's a hesitation that fills you with dread. In the most powerful scene of the film, involving Ejiofor, Fassbender and Nyong'o, the camera carousels around the carnage it's disorientating but you feel like you're in the centre of a cyclone. McQueen examines the landscape and time like he's surveying a natural disaster. The Southern U.S.A locale particularly the swamps, dense sweaty forest and the trees that look as if they're gnarled death draped in grey are nothing short of apocalyptic. Hans Zimmer's score shines where it's complimenting this time severely in need of a biblical flood. In some scenes he's trumpeting in the end of the world with flanged electric guitars, while other moments it's spartan, ominous notes to not manipulate the power of the images.
12 Years a Slave is a screen story that needed to be told, and McQueen and his players told it flawlessly.
Blake Howard - follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman and listen to the audio review on That Movie Show 2UE here or on top-rating film podcast Pod Save Our Screen, available now on iTunes.
Directed by: Steve McQueen
Written by: John Ridley (screenplay) based on "Twelve Years a Slave" by Solomon Northup )
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong'o, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt, Kelsey Scott, Quvenzhané Wallis, Cameron Zeigler, Scoot McNairy, Adepero Oduye, Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Garret Dillahunt
BLAKE HOWARD IS A WRITER, A PODCASTER, AND THE EDITOR-IN-CHIEF & CO-FOUNDER OF AUSTRALIAN FILM BLOG GRAFFITI WITH PUNCTUATION . BLAKE IS A MEMBER OF THE PRESTIGIOUS ONLINE FILM CRITIC SOCIETY (AND A MEMBER OF THE GOVERNING COMMITTEE), IS A CO-HOST OF GAGGLE OF GEEKS ON SYDNEY'S 2SER COMMUNITY RADIO, A COLUMNIST AT THE AUSTRALIAN ONLINE INSTITUTION DARK HORIZONS AND SWAYS THE TOMATO METER WITH ROTTEN TOMATOES APPROVED REVIEWS.