To hear some tell it, perhaps hyperbolically but with real conviction, 12 Years A Slave may be the definitive cinematic treatment of American slavery. Rarely, it's true, have the cruelties of the antebellum South been so thoroughly catalogued. Steve McQueen, the British video artist who made Hunger and Shame, spares his audience little. In retelling the harrowing true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man kidnapped and sold into the plantation system circa 1841, McQueen meets the atrocities of the era head-on. His unblinking gaze settles not only on oozing lacerations—the barbaric handiwork of the overseers—but also on the dehumanizing spectacle of people trotted out like cattle, of children torn from the arms of their screaming mothers, and of a slaver forcing himself, in the dead of terrible night, upon his “property.” Viewers who avert their eyes won’t escape, as hearing the sickening slap of leather against skin, invariably accompanied by a bellow of pain, is just as disturbing as seeing it. If there was any doubt that this is a horror movie, Hans Zimmer’s score pounds and roars with dread—the appropriate soundtrack for the madness of history.
Deeply, and unsentimentally, 12 Years A Slave delves into the unpleasant details of Northup’s 1853 memoir, taking a few dramatic liberties along the way. Yet it’s more than just a litany of sorrows, the ultimate slavery movie it’s already been dubbed. Channeling the evils of human bondage through the experiences of one weary figure, McQueen has constructed another intensely physical character study about a man trapped in his own flesh. However, while Hunger and Shame found the director looking upon his subjects from a certain remove, his interest devoted more clearly to surfaces than psychology, 12 Years A Slave erases the emotional distance between him and his protagonist. Though still enamored of long takes, McQueen no longer seems obsessed with the perfection of his images; he’s instead found a story—an episodic one, headlined by a complicated victim/hero—in which he can truly invest. That makes this wounding historical drama at once the richest, and the most conventional, of the filmmaker’s features.
Spanning a dozen hardscrabble years, with a few achingly sad flashbacks meted out along the way, the plot finds Northup—a husband, father of two, and gifted violinist, living in Saratoga, New York—falling prey to a pair of traitorous opportunists, who force him into the clutches of a Washington, D.C., slave trader. Stripped of his identity, the former free man (rechristened Platt) is soon bounced among plantations in Louisiana. His first owner, Mr. Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), seems about as upstanding as one could expect a slaver to be, lavishing compliments (and a fiddle) upon his suspiciously learned new slave. Of course, the man’s decency has limits: When Northup rebels against a petty, sniveling carpenter (Paul Dano, earning his most deserved beating since There Will Be Blood), Mr. Ford saves his slave’s life but denies him his freedom, trading him to a notoriously cruel counterpart rather than take a loss on the purchase. Through this story strand, 12 Years A Slave punctures the romantic myth, perpetuated by Gone With The Wind and its ilk, of the kindhearted slave-owner. “The plague of the Pharaohs is but a poor sample,” says Alfre Woodard’s favored slave mistress, “of what awaits the plantation class.”
There’s more eloquence where that came from: Screenwriter John Ridley, who penned the WWII-flyboy melodrama Red Tails, displays a knack here for flavorful 19th-century vernacular. His script gains a new dimension of terror and psychosexual drama once Northup ends up in the cotton fields of sadistic drunkard Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender, McQueen’s mercurial muse), who constantly yanks his slaves into the middle of bitter spats with the missus (Sarah Paulson). Proving yet again why he’s one of the most exciting actors working today, Fassbender transforms his character into a compelling human monster—a figure for whom malice and affection are intrinsically entwined, as they were for Ralph Fiennes’ terrifying Nazi commandant in Schindler’s List. There’s a subplot, the movie’s most devastating, about a young girl, Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), forced to bear both the lecherous advances of her master and the violent jealousy of his wife. Her ordeal rivals Northup’s for sheer nightmarishness, and Nyong’o seems to carry the full weight of this national trauma on her frail shoulders.
But the true standout of the cast, peppered with fine unknowns and a few too many star cameos, is the actor at its center. In a remarkably nuanced performance, Ejiofor portrays a man at war with his very humanity. To survive, Northup must suppress traces of his past—his way with words, his fierce intelligence—and embrace his future as an anonymous field hand, lest the oppressors learn the dangerous secret of his origins. That conflict provides 12 Years A Slave with its dramatic backbone, as Ejiofor slips further and further into hopelessness (and the role of Platt) as the years blow by. There’s poetry in his struggle, enhanced by a director attuned, for once, to the emotional states of his characters. For all the hardships he starkly depicts, McQueen knows just when to slip in an image of overwhelming, metaphoric beauty—for example, the raspberry juice that streaks down the side of a bowl, pooling at the edge like leaked tears, spilled blood, or the ink that could provide Northup with his impossible freedom. 12 Years A Slave is all about sea change, and not just for its unfortunate hero. Before everyone’s eyes, a visual virtuoso has transformed into a great storyteller.