Basic Plot: Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free man living in New York with his family when he is suddenly kidnapped and illegally sold into slavery under a different name. He spends twelve horrible years undergoing all the mental and physical trauma of slavery, most of which deriving from the sadistic plantation owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) Based on the 1853 memoir by Solomon Northup.
If you're reading this and have read my other reviews, or if you think all critics are the same, you'll probably assume I loved this movie. After all, practically every critic under the sun loved it, and when a movie receives universal praise, it has to be amazing. And based on my personal reviews, I tend to align with artsy dramas and less with action or horror. You'll probably skim this paragraph and think, yeah he'll love this one. It's a slavery movie. It's historical and heartbreaking. What more could a stuffy critic want?
Well, for one thing, this critic wants to watch a movie without covering his eyes with disgust every five minutes.
The clear goal of this movie was to show just how despicable and harsh slavery was, and for that I will give it credit, because no other movies even hit the cusp of what slavery really is like this film did. This movie was not about plot, not even about character. This was about putting you in the midst of slavery, in its hideous core, and making damn sure you knew how bad it was. I can appreciate the film for focusing on the pure experience of a subject rather than plot. And I can also appreciate ambition, for this movie certainly goes places no mainstream movie does. However, this goal comes at a price. 12 Years a Slave is unbearable.
When I say this, I don't mean the acting sucks or the story stinks, I mean the acts of atrocity on the screen are so horrifying that it'll make you want to throw up. I almost got up and walked out of this movie, and this is coming from a guy who didn't blink during Apocalypse Now, Clockwork Orange, or Audition. I've seen Requiem for a Dream ten times, but you couldn't pay me to watch this again. I'd rather be waterboarded than watch the ten minute whipping scene again. I'd rather play volleyball with a wasp nest than witness that agonizingly slow sex scene between Edwin Epps and his slave girl Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o). This movie is fucking brutal and just when you think it has gotten as bad as it can get, it gets even worse.
Since this film is so radically different from other slavery movies, the best comparison is The Passion of the Christ. The violence is not only painful but it goes on for so long all you can do is stare at the screen with disbelief, or do what I did and cover your eyes with a slit in the middle. I was being perfectly serious when I mentioned the ten minute whipping scene earlier. Patsey, a slave who earns the unwanted infatuation by Edwin Epps, has to deal with his creepy flattery, his constant stares, and of course, nightly rapes. But towards the end of the film, she is also tied to a pole by Epps' suspicious wife, and she is whipped both by the protagonist and Epps. You as an audience member can feel every searing lash that goes into her back. There are many scenes like this, and they all combine to form one of the most excrutiating viewing experiences I've ever had. Even at the end, when you expect a nice fifteen minute stretch of good vibes and celebration, there are only two rushed scenes, whipping by so fast you don't even have time to sigh with relief. Which is good, because that's exactly how it would feel in real life when the end of twelve miserable years end. Great moments always leave us quickly, and 12 Years a Slave captures that sensation perfectly. But it certainly doesn't make you feel any less abused when you leave the theater. Theaters should be required to hand out cupcakes to people leaving this movie.
That's the main thing with this movie, and that when it does something brilliant it's rarely enjoyable. There's a bit during the first act when Solomon, under his first plantation owner, has to deal with the weaselly taunts of a carpenter named John Tibeats (Paul Dano) who sings a racist and annoying chant to the slaves before they start working. The scene then cuts to Solomon attending a mandatory service with the other slaves, and the chant is repeating itself in the background, showing how it's stuck in Solomon's mind like a disease. It's a very clever film device, but it's also incredibly aggravating to listen to for that long. There's another scene where Edwin Epps is forcing the slaves to dance in a small parlor, which they do like dutiful zombies while he grins and claps at them. This shows how the torture of the slaves was not merely physical but psychological as well, and that slavery invaded and raped every part of a person, from mind to body to spirit. However, the scene is so disturbing and Michael Fassbender plays the devilish and creepy Epps with such flair that you want to curl up in your chair and bat it all away with your flailing hands. Almost nothing in this movie could be described as enjoyable, even when it's effective or smart.
I say "almost" because there are three scenes that I actually liked on all levels: the aforementioned ending, the scene where Solomon kicks Tibeats ass, and the almost-lynched scene. What happens in the latter is, after being beaten and humiliated by Solomon, Tibeats and some other workers tie up Solomon, put a noose around his neck, tie the other end of the rope to a nail in the ground, and prepare to lynch him. They are stopped early and forced to leave, yet no one cuts Solomon down. So he stands there, barely keeping his toes in the muddy ground, swaying slightly on the rope, barely breathing from the noose, and then the camera zooms out and becomes fixed on him while other people go about their day in the background. The genius of this scene is once the camera becomes fixed on that one shot, it just stays there. Some people glance at Solomon, as if concerned, while others merely pass by, but no one helps him. Workers don't care about slaves and the slaves have to protect themselves (a big theme in this movie) so the poor man remains. It is silent save for distant footfalls and a breeze. All you can do is watch him, barely moving on the noose for what feels like an hour in that solitary, steady, indescribably powerful and painful shot, until you think it can't keep going but it does. Then he is cut down and you can breathe again.
The music by Hans Zimmer is interesting as well, almost industrial rock with much emphasis on percussion. There is also a violin melody that goes in and out of the movie, but it sounded so much like the "Time" track from Inception (also by Hans Zimmer) that it distracted me.
Now, I strongly believe that the main reason critics love this movie so much is because of white guilt, and while it do think 12 Years a Slave is an extremely effective film, I don't think its subject matter makes it devoid of criticism. For as appallingly visceral as some of the scenes are, some technical aspects are a bit lacking. The cinematography is a bit bland, and as if sensing this, there are random pretty shots of scenery that serve no purpose. The pacing is terrible and the beginning of the film takes too long to get going. Anytime there is not something atrocious happening on the screen, the movie seems to fall asleep. All the in between scenes linking the big bad scenes are fairly boring. There is some shoddy editing as well, including a pointless scene between Solomon, Patsey, and a woman named Mistress Harriet Shaw, who is played by Afre Woodard and the acting by Woodard is over the top and awful.
Other than Woodard though, the acting here is top notch. This is Ejiofor's first big starring role, and he is perfectly cast. There is such a vulnerability to his face that makes it that much more painful when he is tormented. His voice is ideal as well. There is a scene when he is whipped for not picking enough cotton, yet because he is out of focus and in the background, we only hear his voice: a short, trembling wail of a man suffering. There's strong acting from Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti and Lupita Nyong'o but it's Michael Fassbender who steals the show here. You can't call his character a bad guy, he goes well beyond that. Edwin Epps is more like Amon Goeth from Schindler's List, yet somehow worse. Edwin Epps is pure evil. He is demonic. His treatment of the slaves is hideous, and the fact that he believes his treatment is God's will just adds a layer of ignorance on top. His obsession with Patsey and the slow, rape scene between them will make your insides cringe, and when he is angry you are terrified of him because you never know what he will do but you do know it will be more terrible than you can imagine. Fassbender hits every single one of these marks of Edwin Epps with relish. He becomes Edwin Epps, a wild, disturbing devil of a man, and it's a ferocious performance that should win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
It's difficult to rate this movie because it's a virtually joyless experience, yet that was exactly the point. There are moments of true profoundness yet technical flaws as well. The powerful scenes will shock you more than any horror movie, yet the other scenes and the pacing will make you check your watch. I do not agree this is the best movie of the year, it should be watched by anyone who thinks they've "see them all" in the slavery movie department, as I once thought. And I'm clearly procrastinating my rating right now, and that's because part of me hates this movie and part of me admires it. So I'll sum it up as swiftly as I can.
12 Years a Slave is Effective with a capital E, Torture with a capital T, and good with a lower case g.
Best Way to Watch: With an IV of Morphine