12 Years A Slave is a brilliantly filmed, brilliantly acted movie, but, if you’re not careful, it may lead to a real-life sequel called Twelve Years in Therapy. This movie is the cinematic equivalent to being repeatedly kicked in the stomach. I’m not sure whether movies can induce post-traumatic stress disorder, but if any movie can, it’s this one.
Inevitably, 12 Years a Slave invites comparisons to Django Unchained, another ultra-violent movie about slavery that came out a year before. This movie is unquestionably better, in every way. The protagonist is likable and complex, the script is well written, and the characters are far better developed. Just like Django, 12 Years boasts a terrifying, insane plantation owner—but this one is a tortured, impulsive alcoholic, rather than a leering, mustache-twirling psychopath. Unlike Django, 12 Years doesn’t bother to invent horrors—such as brutal gladiator-style fighting or slaves being fed to dogs. Steve McQueen, the director, and John Ridley, the screenwriter, have the sense to know that slavery’s real horrors are more than horrifying enough. And it’s amazing just how many different aspects of slavery they manage to cram into one two-hour film without losing their focus on Solomon’s deeply personal struggle to maintain hope in the face of terror.
It’s not for the faint of heart. The cinematography itself is just as brutal and unflinching as the evil depicted on screen. A three-minute shot lingers on our hero, Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) as he struggles at the end of a rope, slowly choking. Another, even longer scene depicts the agonized screams of an innocent woman as she is whipped at a post. The movie refuses to cut away or even change camera angles, making the audience suffer every last inch of its characters’ torment. There is no escape, the movie seems to be saying. It wants you to feel trapped as the slave are trapped, unable to look away or find respite from the brutality. Needless to say, this isn’t for the faint of heart. Even the sturdy of heart may find themselves deeply nauseated before the credits roll.
The trailer’s happy music is a horrible, horrible lie.
The acting in the film is superb all around, and there are Oscar nominations on the way for at least three of the major characters. Ejiofor is haunting as a man struggling to survive in a brutal world. Lupita Nyong’o plays a miserable, broken woman caught between her master’s lust and her mistress’s vengeful jealousy. Her desperate eyes will linger on into your nightmares well after the movie is over. Michael Fassbender is repulsive and absolutely terrifying as an insane plantation owner. There is no other word to describe him. Benedict Cumberbatch also shines in a smaller, but memorable role.
The two main characters take a break from being abused to share a tender moment.
Can anything bad be said about a movie that is a strong front-runner for Best Picture of the Year? If I wanted to quibble, I’d point out the lackluster opening. We never get a clear sense of Ejiofor’s relationship with his wife, and the opening few scenes are filled with 19th century dialogue that may sound clunky, forced, or unbelievable (though, considering the movie’s investment in historical accuracy, is probably more realistic than it sounds). Solomon’s capture is handled with slightly less grace than the scenes that follow it. None of that matters once Ejiofor is forced onto a slave ship, though, because the movie quickly takes hold of your heart and never lets it go.
12 Years a Slave is a near-perfectly crafted descent into a nightmare. Enter at your own risk.