Director Steve McQueen’s third movie 12 Years a Slave is based on the autobiography by Solomon Northup (portrayed by Chiwetel Ejiofor). A free black man from New York in 1841 who got abducted by two men who pretending to hire him as a violinist. Very quickly Solomon – now referred to as Platt – gets sold to a slaveowner (Benedict Cumberbatch) and is facing the harsh reality of working as a slave.
Riding on a lot of Oscar buzz 12 Years a Slave had me after a few minutes and after the movie was over I had this rare moment when I realized that I actually really love both frontrunners for best picture at the Oscars (Gravity being the other contender).
The horrible 12 years
Watching 12 Years a Slave I was relieved to know that the title pretty much spoiled the ending because otherwise I would have believed that Solomon for sure was going to die. Especially when things turn from bad to worse with the introduction of Michael Fassbender’s lunatic character the watch gets even tougher.
The story goes on for 2 hours and 20 minutes yet unlike many other movies the execution is spot on. The movie shocks you and never lets you go. When the ending is finally coming it feels like a lifetime has passed – in a good way.
A classic Oscar movie – not done the Oscar way
On paper this movie might fall under the category “Oscar-bait”. Just another of those “important movies” based on a true story, tackling a serious subject and leaving the audience in a miserable mood when it’s over. Well the final part is still true.
But everything about 12 Years a Slave defies Oscar-expectations. In the hands of a more conventional director it might have turned into exactly that sort of movie. But the direction here is the thing that changes everything.
Director Steve McQueen has made two movies before this one: Shame (2011) and Hunger (2008). I haven’t seen either of them but I already knew about McQueen’s reputation from people who sat through his first two movies. And after watching the trailer it was clear that 12 Years a Slave was not going to be an easy watch – nor should it be (and since friends who have seen both his other movies assured me that this movie was the most rewatchable of McQueen’s movies I am now truly afraid to see Shame).
Whether it is the horrifyingly perfect whipping scene or the depressing mood that is felt thorough it is clear that this is not the glorified great important movie where all the edges have been taken off for maximum appeal. Despite all the importance and Oscar-buzz the movie feels incredibly intimate.
The conflicts are never simplified and the characters are actual 3dimenstional characters. Whether it is Cumberbatch’s nice but cowardly owner or Fassbender’s maniac performance. It is very refreshing to see Cumberbatch in a “normal” after all the Sherlock and Khan he has given us recently. Lupita Nyong’o’s performance is definitely deserving all the Oscar buzz.
Now I am curious about Dallas Buyers Club because how amazing can Matthew McConaughey’s performance be to steal the spotlight from Chiwetel Ejiofor?
It should be noted that the entire acting department is incredible. Aside from a cameo by Brad Pitt which reminds you of Aldo the Apache from Inglourious Basterds there is no real misstep. A special final mention goes to Sarah Paulson’s who portrays Fassbender’s vile wife.
Everyone feels believable and never delve into caricature territory.
12 Years a Slave is an incredible piece of work – tough to watch and not for everyone. Stuffed with top performances and filled with layered characers the movie is one of the best movies out this year and deserves every piece of recognition it gets. After watching 12 Years a Slave one can only smile even more at Tarantino’s statements about freeing the slaves.
P.S.: After this movie I really felt the urge to rewatch last year’s Lincoln seeing it as a sequel to 12 Years a Slave. The movie is such a tough watch that some uplifting Spielberg is probably the best thing to go along with it.
P.P.S.: Hans Zimmer’s score really was lazy as hell.