At this point “12 Years a Slave” has only its own publicity to conquer. Moviegoers reeling from “Gravity” may well approach director Steve McQueen's patient, clear-eyed and altogether extraordinary adaptation of the 1853 slave narrative with a combination of preconditioned shock and awe (given the subject matter) and misleading expectations of classy, eight-cylinder Hollywood melodrama.
But this is different. It is smaller in size and larger, deeper, more complicated in its reach. It is its own classically accomplished achievement. There are a few drawbacks but a few hundred more rewards to be found here in McQueen's third and finest feature, preceded by “Hunger” (2008) and “Shame” (2011), about Irish Republican Army hunger striker Bobby Sands and a fictional New York City sex addict, respectively.
McQueen's images have always had a self-conscious side; in his earlier pictures the staging, the lighting, the compositions had a way of turning the storytelling into picture-framing. Not here. Something else takes over in “12 Years a Slave.” While this is very much a McQueen picture, with visual flourishes and motifs unmistakably his, the historical urgency and staggering injustice of the events keep McQueen and company utterly honest in their approach and in their collective act of imagining Solomon Northup's odyssey to hell and back.
That odyssey took the freeborn man of color from Saratoga, N.Y., to the swamps and whip cracks of pre-Civil War Louisiana. The film version of Northup's account, written by John Ridley, takes a great deal of the language from the original book while compressing the events and the chapters describing an abduction from freedom into chains. Already we're going in the opposite direction of virtually every other slave account in the movies. To say (rightly) that “12 Years a Slave” is the best so far says too little. To say we needed a movie like this, after the facetious spaghetti-Western-blaxploitation make-believe of Quentin Tarantino's “Django Unchained,” says even less. Let's just say a film this good, and this quietly distinctive in its style, is always welcome.
In 1841 the middle-class Northup, married with young children, was hired as a violinist for a job in Washington, D.C., while his wife, a cook and a domestic, was away on temporary employment. In Washington, Northup was drugged, kidnapped, chained and sold, then transported to Louisiana. Thus began a life of raw survival as a Northerner who could not reveal his education or literacy without risking all.
The events of the film are stripped down to Northup's experiences on two plantations. The first belonged to a relatively kindly slave owner, played by Benedict Cumberbatch; the second, which accounted for nearly a decade of Northup's enslavement, was ruled by an unpredictable, raging drunk, described by Northup in his memoir as a sadistic creature “distinguished for his faculty of subduing the spirit of the slave.”
McQueen has an actor of exceptional, complicated spirit at the center of “12 Years a Slave,” Chiwetel Ejiofor. Like many of his on-screen and behind-the-camera colleagues, he is a London-based talent, and with McQueen being British, the film has garnered heat in some American quarters for not being “American” enough. It's hardly worth discussion; it's all in the results. With his skillfully sustained long shots, often revealing a half-dozen grievous facets of the plantation life in a single image, McQueen ensures our rapt attention without resorting to every vicious cliche and screw-tightening trick the movies have given us since D.W. Griffith (a great artist, but still).
On the Epps plantation, the psychosis of the “peculiar institution” reaches dizzying heights. Northup befriends Patsey, who has the miserable distinction of being the sexual chattel of the master. A remarkable newcomer, Lupita Nyong'o, plays Patsey; Michael Fassbender casts a formidable shadow as Edwin Epps, whose wife (a steely, effective Sarah Paulson) can barely process the indignity of being sidelined in her slovenly husband's affections by a piece of property.
Throughout the picture, Ejiofor's character is both participant and observer in his own nightmare. With a lesser actor Northup might seem a cipher. But McQueen uses him brilliantly. There are so many striking moments. After turning on a particularly venal workman (played by Paul Dano) on his first plantation, Northup survives a lynching, barely. For an excruciating length of time we see Northup dangling from the rope while stretching his toes in order to reach the muddy and treacherous ground. No music. No false dramatics. The sound of the cicadas is background music enough. (Elsewhere, the typically bombastic composer Hans Zimmer contributes one of his least intrusive scores.) Another inspired long take (probably the best thing McQueen has ever staged on film) features Paul Giamatti as a slave trader offering his fresh supplies for display. It's a whirligig of motion and action, all of it appalling and appallingly matter-of-fact.
“12 Years a Slave” comes from Brad Pitt's Plan B production company. Rather jarringly, Pitt takes on a key good-guy role near the end, that of a Canadian carpenter working on the Epps plantation — in many scenes, we see structures being built while an entire corrosive society metaphorically crashes down around them. The film cost between $20 million and $22 million to produce, according to various reports, and the physical production's modest scope is perfect for the story. One of the key one-two punches is a shot of a paddle wheel from inside the craft — the boat is transporting Northup and his fellow slaves from up North to down South — followed, a few minutes later, by a shot of a corpse bundled up and buried unceremoniously at sea, filmed from the same angle. There's no exterior shot of the ship. McQueen finds ways to visualize Northup's story without the usual peaks and valleys or throat-clearing transitional moments. It all flows naturally, like a tributary feeding a big, bad river.
One aspect of the film feels artificial, as opposed to carefully stylized. The gracious life of Northup and his family in Saratoga is depicted as a kind of placid fairy tale. It's treated as such for heightened contrast to the horrors around the bend, but it seems somewhat ahistorical, as if racism itself didn't exist north of the Mason-Dixon. A few of the casting strokes (Pitt and Dano especially) have a way of taking you out of the film, momentarily. But the scenes of real impact, and there are dozens, make hash of these small issues, such as Patsey's plea to Northup to help end her life. She has suffered too much, in too many ways, yet Northup cannot understand her fatalism. “How can you fall into such despair?” he asks. “How can you not know?” comes the reply.
In that scene, as with so much of this supple achievement, “12 Years a Slave” reminds us: Behind one person's story, there are others, millions more, whose stories demand equal time and films of their own."12 Years a Slave" - 4 stars
MPAA rating: R (for violence/cruelty, some nudity and brief sexuality)
Running time: 2:14