I wanted to make sure I saw this film before it won the Academy Award for Best Picture (which I'm fairly certain it will). This movie has received a ton of critical praise over the last few months, and for good reason, as I'm about to explain. Having said that, I am not someone who enjoys or even consumes a lot of biopics in my movie-viewing. That's not to say that I cannot appreciate them for what they are, but it also presents certain problems when attempting to critically analyze a film like 12 Years a Slave. I see movies through a different lens than most moviegoers probably do, as I tend to critique each moment of a film twice; at the time I see it during the film as well as after the film has concluded. At the risk of sounding negative on this film, let me first assure you that this film is unequivocally tremendous, which doesn't necessarily mean that I thought it was perfect.
In 1841, Solomon Northup was a free negro who lived in Saratoga Springs, New York with his wife and two kids, working as a carpenter and a fiddler. After his wife departed on a business trip, however, Solomon was offered a job by a pair of apparently high-minded individuals before they showed their true natures by betraying Solomon and handing him over to slave-traders. Waking up in shackles and being kept in a basement several blocks from the nation's capital, Solomon was beaten every time he tried to explain that he was actually a free man. He was soon told that in order to survive he had to repress his memories and hide his knowledge of who he really was. Shortly thereafter he and a small group of similarly deceived people were transported to New Orleans, beginning his torturous twelve-year experience as a slave.
This movie is incredibly uncomfortable to watch, as I feel it needs to be. It establishes this tone right from the get-go as we see a side to slavery that isn't always thought about (and that is particularly horrifying to all in Solomon's position). Never before has a film so realistically depicted the tragedy and the day-to-day depravity that was slavery. It's a brutal, terrible thing to witness, but doing so is a small discomfort compared to the great lesson in history as well as the unparalleled cinematic perspective it offers. There's no way a film like this can be enjoyed for its entertainment value as it's more of a work of art than mindless escapism. And in that regard, it is truly a masterpiece.
Solomon's story is unthinkable, which makes it that much more powerful to watch this true story reenacted. Easily some of the best actors in the business are doing what is sure to be their best work to date in this film, whether they're playing sympathetic, conflicted, or downright deplorable. Chiwetel Ejiofor was absolutely astounding as Solomon, perfecting the quiet moments with as much precision as his emotional pinnacles. If he doesn't win the Oscar, it will certainly be a shame in my book (though I haven't seen Dallas Buyer's Club to judge Matthew McConaughey's performance, who is his biggest competition).
Possibly even more impressive still is Michael Fassbender's fearless portrayal of the most evil slave owner imaginable. The misguided justifications he employs for his heinous crimes are possibly the most terrible thing about the character as he brutally attempts to break each of the people he regards as his "property". He plays an incredibly convincing antagonist, which is surely why he's nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his performance.
Though she doesn't have much to work with, Lupita Nyongo does a good job of selling her inner turmoil. As the object of her slave master's desire, she knows she can do nothing to improve her position other than to give in to her master's wishes. However, her master is extremely jealous and violent, often lashing out in anger based solely on his suspicions and wild accusations. It's heartbreaking to see, and one particularly intense and devastating scene will probably stick with viewers forever.
This film also has the benefit of being scored by one of the greatest composers in the industry, Hans Zimmer. His haunting piece of music entitled "Solomon" captures the loss and sorrow of the man many came to know as Platt throughout his days as a slave. Zimmer also overcomes the audience with a dark, penetrating sound that highlights the cruel, nihilistic actions of evil men in an equally dark time of human history.
I've given this movie a whole lot of compliments that it completely deserves, so you're probably wondering why I didn't go with a four star rating. Though I seriously debated that myself, there were a few problems I found with the film that kept me from really feeling Solomon's plight (his separation from his family). Though I might be straying into nit-picking territory here, I honestly have to say that this film would have connected a little more with me on an emotional level if I had seen Solomon together with his family for a little longer before his abduction. To establish his home life in a mere scene or two sort of gives short shrift to the family that was taken from him and lessens some of the weight of the film's climax in my opinion. I also wish the movie had told me a little more about Patsey, as her character felt a little underserved by the story (other than the great performance).
Despite my few qualms with the film, this is a masterful historical piece with brilliant performances and top-notch film-making. It's a hard movie to watch, and therefore might not be something everyone will want to consume. Having said that, it's impossible to discount the insightful and at times horrendous glimpses of human behavior given in this film. Don't go to this movie if you aren't prepared for a depressing experience, but the education you receive will surely be worth the temporary discomfort. I give Twelve Years a Slave the strongest possible three and half stars.
TWELVE YEARS A SLAVE is rated R for violence/cruelty, some nudity and brief sexuality