Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave is one of those movies you have to see, almost as though a penance or homework assignment. It's a work of magnificence that you need to have experienced if you want to expose yourself to the best that moviedom has to offer. You know that you are in for an uncomfortable experience from the get-go, and just have to deal with that reality, wince and deal.
Based on the 1853 Solomon Northup memoir about a free man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery, the film is out to reveal the grotesque realities of human subjugation. The grime, crushing workloads, barnyard-like living conditions and cruel mental and physical tortures. It's one thing to see an innocent man whipped to a bloody pulp by a sadistic master, but quite another to see the master force another slave to elicit the whipping. Forced participation in cruelty is an ongoing theme in the movie, which explores the social strata of the slave and the interwoven levels of injustice and abuse of power all the way down through the chain of misery.
Chiwetel Ejiofor thoroughly owns the film in the lead. I hate to be one of those guys who is so stunned by a performance then runs out and declares that he absolutely needs to win the Oscar, but I have to do it here. Sure, there are about 20 or 30 movies yet to come out that I need to see before I can say such a thing with any kind of authority, but Ejiofor is so amazing here that it's almost impossible to imagine anyone out-doing him. So either he will win the Oscar or he will be robbed.
Brad Pitt pops up in a minor but crucial role late in the film, and Paul Giamatti makes a mark as a slimy slave wholesaler, but the real work comes from Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender as a disgustingly vindictive master and Lupita Nyong'o as his unwilling mistress. All three performances are enthrallingly awards-caliber, and while it's trite to boil down artistic work to that level, I want them to be recognized so badly that I can't help myself.
The movie is well paced, devastating and eventually uplifting in its strange, harried ways, but it's not quite worthy of its performances. Like The Passion of the Christ, there's a disturbing obsession with flesh being ripped from the bone. The graphic cinematography leaves no detail to the imagination. Reaction shots accompanied by sounds, which McQueen uses sparingly, are more effective at showing the devastation of lashings and lynchings, but he sticks to the gory, incredibly realized details.
The film wants to hurt you, knows you are terrified of what it will show you, then shows you way more than you bargained for. Two critics I watched the film with stormed out in disgust, and I suspect many audiences will do just the same. It normally bothers me when people do that, but I can't really blame them. I just happen to be one of the people who was stuck to his chair, unable to move even if I wanted to.
Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Paul Giamatti and Sarah Paulson. Written by John Ridley, based on the Solomon Northup book. Directed by Steve McQueen. 113 minutes. Rated R.