Review - 12 Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave (2013), R, 134 minutes - I saw this film a week ago and it has taken me a few days to figure out how I felt about it, and I'm still not sure.  Actually, that's a lie.  I know that it sickened me.  It sickened me on a number of levels.  Not because it isn't a well made film - it is, it's one of the best I've seen this year - but because the content it brings to life is just that appalling.

12 Years a Slave is based on the memoirs of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free man in a pre-Civil War United States who was abducted from his home and family in upstate New York and sold into slavery.  Just hearing a story like that is disturbing enough, but then you see the circumstances in which it occurred it is that much more sickening.  Solomon wasn't taken from his home in the middle of the night, he was conned.  An able musician, he thought that he was entering into a business arrangement with two men, Brown (Scoot McNairy) and Hamilton (Taran Killam), who claimed to run a traveling festival and were in need of hiring entertainers.  After traveling with the men for a week or so, Solomon has a celebratory dinner with them, during which he he drinks a bit too much.  When he wakes the following morning, he finds himself shackled up in chains in a dark cellar.  This begins his long, arduous descent into the life of a slave, which, obviously, is a far departure from the free life he had previously led.  He comes in contact with, and is subjected to, all manner of men during his time as a slave: kind and fair (Benedict Cumberbatch's Ford), weak, fearful and overcompensatingly mean (Paul Dano's Tibeats), possessive, lustful, crazy and brutal (Michael Fassbender's Edwin Epps), deceitful (Garret Dillahunt's Armsby), and compassionate and helpful (Brad Pitt's Bass).

There are a number of excellent performances in 12 Years a Slave.  Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender will almost assuredly get Oscar nominations for their roles.  It's good to see Ejiofor get the opportunity to be a leading man.  He's been in a number of good movies over the years, but usually as a supporting character.  He took full advantage with an excellent performance.  Not taking anything away from his powerful portrayal of Solomon, but Fassbender's Epps may be the most memorable from this film.  Lupita Nyong'o should also receive an Oscar nomination for her role as fellow Epps plantation slave Patsey.  Patsey's story is as compelling as Solomon's.  Getting caught between Epps and his wife (Sarah Paulson) through no fault of her own probably could have been its own movie.  Paul Giamatti and the aforementioned Pitt also pop up in small but important roles.  Giamatti as the dealer that sells Solomon into slavery and Pitt as the compassionate Canadian carpenter who passes Solomon's story along, leading to his being freed.

Many of the same themes were touched on in last year's Django Unchained.  The difference being Django was clearly a work of fiction.  Many scenes, while disturbing, were made slightly more bearable because of the tone of the film.  There is no such reprieve in 12 Years a Slave.  There are a number of scenes that dwell on the events that just occurred to the point of which it becomes really uncomfortable.  When I first got out of the theater I felt that these scenes were a bit excessive.  But upon reflection I realize that's exactly why those scenes were cut that way: to really let the scene sink in.  It is a small touch by director Steve McQueen that is used to dramatic effect.

12 Years a Slave is a very good movie that is definitely worth seeing.  It does however fall into the category of 'movie I won't go out of my way to see again' (along with the likes of Requiem for a Dream).  I can honestly only recommend it after making it clear that there is quite a bit of disturbing material and a TON of language (specifically a certain racial slur).  If you are offended by such, steer clear.  If you're interested in a different type of story from our country's past, by all means, give it a watch.  It'll certainly give you a lot to think about.


- They were very small roles, but it was nice seeing both Dwight Henry and Quvenzhan√© Wallis on screen again after Beasts of the Southern Wild.  Especially Henry, as we know that Wallis has a number of other projects lined up.

- I like Brad Pitt, but his inclusion in this film was a little distracting.  He just seemed to stand out compared to the others in the cast.  As opposed to Cumberbatch and Fassbender for example that seemed to disappear into their roles.  When Pitt's Bass shows up, it felt like 'oh there's Brad Pitt trying to sound Canadian'.

- Was I the only one that felt the score was very similar to that of Inception?  On a number of occasions, I felt like I was going to see a top spinning/fluttering.

- I liked the duality of Cumberbatch's role as Ford.  He treats his slaves kindly and listens to their suggestions on how he could better run his plantation with open ears.  He rewards their work with gifts, and is generally a good guy.  Then you remember that he's a slave owner and takes advantage of a system that he knows (and shows) is immoral.


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