Saturday, December 7, 2013

12 Years A Slave review

Every once in a while, a film comes along that critics say everyone must see. Not because it's a great film, but because it is a great film and a necessary one. Necessary, in the sense that the film helps us to understand our gravest errors as humans. To understand the inhumanity of the human race. To understand the horrors that were committed in our past. To understand history. In past years, films such as Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, and Hotel Rwanda have become known for their ability to show us our past mistakes, and bring the atrocities of history to life in a way that books simply can't. According to critics, 2013 has brought us another film that critics have called a necessary film. 12 Years A Slave, the new film from acclaimed British director Steve McQueen, takes a brutal, horrifying and flat-out unbelievable look at American slavery. While the film has a few flaws in its narrative structure, there is so much power in this film. There are some scenes in this movie that will stay with you forever. I agree with the other critics: 12 Years A Slave is a necessary film, for sure.

12 Years A Slave tells the story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Northup is a free man in Saratoga, New York. He's a fantastic violin player and gets along with the white men in Saratoga very well. However, one day, Solomon is offered a job with a traveling circus by two white men, Brown (Taran Killam) and Hamilton (Scoot McNairy). Solomon comes to trust the men, but is eventually deceived and sold into slavery in the south. 12 Years a Slave chronicles the long journey of Northup from the house of the kind Master Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) to the house of an evil plantation owner, Epps (Michael Fassbender) to the joys of freedom. 

12 Years A Slave is not the most fun movie you will see in theaters this year. It probably ranks near the bottom of the pile. There are some truly grueling scenes in this movie, and they will certainly make you cringe. Yet, I never found the film to be overbearing. I never thought that it was too intense. Director Steve McQueen found just the right tone to tell his story, and it worked really well for this film. Add that up with some truly spectacular performances, and several great scenes, and you have one of the best movies of the year.

You can't talk about this film without talking about the performances. The performances are downright spectacular. Chiwetel Ejiofor is fantastic as Solomon and his performance is undoubtedly one of the year's best. Ejiofor gives you so much insight into the mind of Solomon with so few words. His performance is fully based in emotion, and those emotions show so much throughout the film. It's a great performance, and in a less competitive year, I would say with certainty that Ejiofor would win best actor. Still, even if he doesn't win, it's a great performance. Lupita Nyong'o is also garnering Oscar buzz for her performance as Patsy, the slave who falls victim to the torture of Epps. She's quite good, and her character is truly tragic. However, I wasn't quite as enamored with her performance as other critics seem to be.

Also, the film features some truly despicable villains. The character who I hated the most was Paul Dano's Tibeats. There are crueler characters in the film, but almost none that I found more awful than Tibeats. Dano plays him with such jealousy and hatred, and it's quite the performance. Right on the same level with Tibeats is Michael Fassbender's Epps. He's an interesting character, because he's quite obsessed with Patsy, but he's still a horrible, disturbing human being, who's capable of extreme cruelty.

The story is the rare spot of trouble in the film, although it's not entirely its own fault. 12 Years A Slave isn't exactly a traditional narrative. There's a narrative cycle to it all, and the film has a clear beginning, middle and end, but at times, the film feels like it's merely a series of scenes. Especially during Solomon's slave years, the film feels like a series of scenes to develop the characters at hand. That really works for the film, as you get to see the emotions of the characters and understand their mindset, but it's slightly jarring when the most intense moment of the film is followed by a conversation between Ejiofor and Brad Pitt.

The direction of 12 Years A Slave is masterful. McQueen definitely deserves a lot of the attention that he is getting for this film. The way that McQueen sets up his scenes is completely masterful. While I made a slight complaint in that last paragraph about the fact that the film feels like a series of scenes at times, McQueen makes every scene pop off the screen. There are scenes in this movie that will stick with me forever. The introduction of Michael Fassbender's character is one of the best villain introductions of the year. The scene where a lead character hangs off a tree, clinging for his life, had me unable to breathe. McQueen's directorial style often involves a few too many nature shots and indie flourishes for me, but he sets up each scene so well and so memorably, that you can't help but be drawn into this film.

The technical elements of 12 Years A Slave are also brilliant. The score by Hans Zimmer is never overused, and always has an impact on the scene at hand. The cinematography by Sean Bobbitt is fantastic as well. 12 Years A Slave is also an incredibly well edited film. The film shows some signs of being an independent film at times, but McQueen holds the camera steady for most of the film. He also knows how long to keep a scene going for. It's fantastic film making.

12 Years A Slave is a rated R film, and deservedly so. There's horrific cruelty, sexual content and nudity. I believe personally that everyone should see this film. It can be a tough watch, but it's very rewarding in the end. I don't want to give an age for who I think should watch it, because I think that with a film like this, everyone will respond differently to the violence. Personally, I did not think that the film's violence was overly graphic or intense. In fact, I wouldn't say that Slave is a bloody or graphic film at all. However, 12 Years A Slave is a film that doesn't rely on showing you tons of blood or gore to get across the horror of its violence. It does that by the terrifying and disturbing screams of the victim, which you consistently hear. It does that by the sounds of the violence. It relies on McQueen's visceral style to convey its violence to the audience. Those things are what make 12 Years A Slave a disturbing and difficult film to watch throughout. In addition, 12 Years A Slave is a film that disturbs you by its inhumanity. Not only are there beatings and hangings, there are also scenes of unimaginable cruelty, with characters that treat other human beings like animals. Some of the scenes in this film are truly unbelievable.

12 Years A Slave is a film of emotion. Every character, every scene, and every direction gushes pure emotion. It is truly pervasive throughout this film. Chiwetel Ejiofor's performance is built solely on emotion, and so are the performances of Fassbender and Nyong'o. This film would be nothing without the pure emotion that everyone involved gives it. 12 Years A Slave is a film that you simply must watch. It's literally a string of fantastic scenes with great performances at every corner. This is a film that will be tough to beat in the Oscar season. You won't be able to get it out of your head. It's that good.

THE FINAL GRADE:  A                                               (9/10)

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