I really wanted to love 12 Years a Slave. I'm a big fan of McQueen's previous two films - Hunger and Shame, the latter getting one of the very rare 10/10 from me. Unfortunately, 12 Years of Slave is far from greatness in almost every aspect and most shockingly - it didn't move me. I observed there are people out there claiming if this film didn't move you, you must be a racist. I'm gonna go ahead and disagree with that profoundly moronic statement.
The problem with 12 Years a Slave is that it's two movies in one. On one hand we have minimalistic approach which is McQueen's trademark - scenes involving just few or two actors, often with very little dialogue. Those are the film's best moments. On the other - we have scenes trying to convey the amount of horrifying injustice happening, epic scale of the issue. These two just don't fit together and they make the film feel disjointed.
There are too many characters here and neither of them gets enough material or screen time. In attempt to portray Solomon's journey, the writer John Ridley gets completely lost. Solomon encounters many different people on his way, yet very rarely they leave any impression on the audience. Worse than that - those scenes often contain simplistic dialogue and lack depth. Almost every single character in this movie deserves much more than was given to them.
McQueen found the right leading man - Ejiofor's talent and grace make his Solomon likable and we root for him to survive and get home. But it is only because of the actor's talent that we feel this way. There are several moments here that match his performance in terms of direction - mainly the camera focusing on Solomon's face as he got rescued - but there is not enough of them. Because of that sense of detachment from Solomon McQueen and Ridley inadvertently created the film that didn't move me as much as it should have.
Had McQueen stripped the film out of all the extra scenes and secondary characters and focused his movie on Epps's plantation that could have been a masterpiece. He is a good director but he has limitations - he can convey loneliness, grief, determination, but when the scale gets bigger and it involves the whole ensemble, he gets lost. He is no Steven Spielberg and that is most certainly not Schindler's List. In fact I find the very comparison insulting, considering how far and above to this one Spielberg's movie is, in spite of many parallels between the two (as soon as the film hits the DVD you know it's my future Visual Parallels, right?)
All those scenes with Giamatti, Dano (just embarrassingly awful), Dillahunt and Alfre Woodard take our focus away from Solomon. Yes, they are connected to his character and his journey, but because of McQueen focusing so much on them and so little on our protagonist in the scenes they share, our focus is away from the emotional core of this film - which technically is Solomon's desire to get home - for way too long.
In the result 12 Years a Slave is a good movie with many great scenes but far from actual greatness as a whole. The focused moments are powerful - Epps rape of numb Patsey, jealous and drunk Epps chasing Solomon, Solomon getting the beating for refusing to say he is a slave. Those are the moments that are simply unflinching and shocking in their power - McQueen doesn't cut away and makes us pay attention.
Unfortunately, those scenes almost get lost in all those attempts to get us to understand the horror of slavery - the killings of slaves, the punishment of Solomon for fighting back against white man, the cold dealings and presenting slaves to potential buyers as if they were objects. It just feels too cold, too detached - it was just that, but it shouldn't leave the one watching it cold and detached. Solomon isn't as well established as, say, Oscar Schindler. It wasn't enough for me to care simply because he is witnessing all of that.
There are many complaints against the movie calling it slave porn. I thought that the violence at least infused the film with powerful emotions. Yes, the scenes that are violent or show the aftermath of senseless cruelty were, unfortunately, the only ones to elicit a response from me. I wouldn't say McQueen used them aware of the fact that those will make his film moving, but given how bland many of the other sequences are, for me that was the effect.
It really didn't feel like McQueen's film to me. Hunger was a study of sacrifice and desperation, Shame - of loneliness and addiction. Both were powerful and affecting. 12 Years a Slave didn't feel like the study of anything - it showed us some of the most shameful time in United States' history but it failed to say anything new or particularly meaningful about it. We all know it was terrible. And the film will never fully reflect the horror of actual events.
It could come close, with better script and director suitable for this story. The film lacks both. Its saving grace is the cast and four performances that in spite of the film's shortcomings all have shining moments and stay in your mind after the film is over. But because of the script, while almost everyone is giving their best, they don't have enough to work with. Michael Fassbender is chilling as unpredictable and confused Epps. Fassbender is a link between all three of McQueen's films, but I felt that for the first time the director let him down - his performance deserved much more focus on it.
Fassbender's performance is masterful but I wish he was given more scenes. His Epps is frightening because he is a drunk and you never know when he will unleash his irrational and savage fury on someone. He is also fascinated with one of the slaves - young girl named Patsey. His interest in her brought to mind the feeling Goeth had for his servant in Schindler's List, but neither Fassbender nor Nyong'o or the scenes given to them came close to the horror, sense of longing and pain depicted by Fiennes and Davitz and their sequences together.
I really wish more time was spent on the relationship between Epps and his wife. I also wish more praise was given to Sarah Paulson for her outstanding performance here. She is the only one who doesn't have obviously meaty scenes like Nyong'o, Fassbender or Ejiofor but she is just as good. She creates layered work and she is even more terrifying than Fassbender is - she is cold, but her cruelty hides pain and rejection. If anyone should be getting raves it's her - for truly elevating the material she was given to work with.
Sadly, come Oscar time, it's not Paulson who will be getting the nomination but Lupita Nyong'o. I'm saying sadly because Paulson deserves some praise. However Nyong'o performance is worthy of accolades for sure. She has the most baity moments in the movie - the role requires her to be scream, cry, depict unimaginable pain. She does all those things and yet still she manages to show so much grace, innocence and dignity in her Patsey. She breaks your heart.
It's Nyong'o who is responsible for the film's most heart wrenching moments. The whipping scene involving her being punished is horrible but it wasn't as well edited as I would expected it to be in McQueen's film. But the following scene with Patsey crying as others tend to her wounds is very powerful.
Ejiofor just like Fassbender is a wonderful actor who delivered great work, but is largely let down by the movie as a whole. I'm sure he will walk out of most ceremonies with Best Actor prize. His talent deserves it, but his performance? No, but it would if only he gave it in a better movie that would value his character more.
He does have some incredible moments here, though, like his argument with a woman missing her kids or the scene where he watches Patsey after she was whipped. His single tear running down his face has more power than loud and obnoxious sequence on the ship in the film's beginning.
Out of the many, many supporting actors only Benedict Cumberbatch is a clear standout as a gentle but ultimately helpless slave owner. His conflicted character was one of the very few memorable ones there. Brad Pitt is doing what he can, but he just feels out of place in the film.
While Hans Zimmer goes overboard with bombastic score in some sequences, his main theme for the film is powerful and memorable and added a lot of emotion to the scenes it was featured in. The cinematography is often beautiful, but the editing is far from the best.
12 Years of Slave is a good movie, but it's the worst among McQueen's films. The director tried to do too much here without adjusting his usual approach which worked so well in his more focused films. It's still worth seeing, mostly for superb acting and several magnificent scenes.
12 Years a Slave
(2013, 134 min)
Plot: In the antebellum United States, Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York, is abducted and sold into slavery.
Director: Steve McQueen
Writers: John Ridley (screenplay), Solomon Northup (based on "Twelve Years a Slave" by)
Stars: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael K. Williams, Michael Fassbender