Excruciatingly brutal yet undeniably powerful, 12 Years a Slave is a soul-splintering descent into hell, a harrowing journey through the inner workings of an institution that robbed people of freedom, family, and dignity.
Chewetel Ejiofor gives an astonishing performance, following up his fine work in Children of Men by embodying Solomon Northup to heartbreaking effect. The man is persistent, hard-working, committed, sure, but he is also angry and broken and torn between survival and how far to push a system that constantly works against him.
With unparalleled rage, malice, and obsession, Michael Fassbender (Shame, Jane Eyre) disappears into Edwin Epps and handles the toughest scenes in the film (the dehumanization of Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o, and others through rape, lashing, and verbal tirades) with fierce tenacity and a terrifying absence of conscience. Benedict Cumberbatch (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) and Sarah Paulson (Mud) prove their mettle and are faultless in their portrayals; Paulson has several devastating moments.
The film is not without its shortcomings. The string of star cameos, including Paul Giamatti (Barney’s Version), is distracting in some cases. Paul Dano (Little Miss Sunshine) is saddled with lines of borderline-ludicrous hysteria, scenes which do not rise to the brilliance of the similarly-toned There Will Be Blood. Brad Pitt (Inglorious Basterds) as the rights-spouting saviour is a bit too on-the-nose, although the message is heard loud and clear.
There have also been allegations that Steve McQueen’s austere directorial style comes into conflict with the narrative. It is true that DP Sean Bobbitt’s ravishing formal beauty and crisp sense of composition may deprive audiences of a degree of engagement with the horrors on screen. But McQueen is working with gripping material and great actors that punch their way through these constraints. They should be given credit for presenting everything at face value, rather than dipping into sensationalism.
12 Years a Slave is an emotionally overwhelming work that tramples doubts, champions courage, and leaves a river of tears in its wake.