In the meantime, the film has been added to the New York Film Festival lineup, and will be screened there on October 8.
12 Years a Slave opens on October 18.
The first thing fans of McQueen’s “Hunger” and “Shame” will notice here is the degree to which the helmer’s austere formal technique has evolved — to the extent that one would almost swear he’d snuck off and made three or four films in the interim. Composition, sound design and story all cut together beautifully, and yet, there’s no question that “12 Years a Slave” remains an art film, especially as the provocative director forces audiences to confront concepts and scenes that could conceivably transform their worldview. (…)
Such cruelty is commonplace in the film’s first two hours, and though audiences might not pick up on the technique, McQueen applies the same unflinching approach to these moments that he used in “Hunger” and “Shame”: long uninterrupted takes that force us to absorb the full impact of human mistreatment, as when Northrup survives a lynching attempt, only to dangle from a noose for several minutes while his fellow slaves move about in the background, too nervous to cut him down. This scene also perfectly illustrates McQueen’s knack for letting the characters’ behavior inform the sociology of the situation, rather than explaining things overtly through dialogue.
Indeed, I believe that it will strongly contend for noms in the categories of best picture, best director (McQueen, for biting off more than ever before and capably chewing it), best actor (Ejiofor, for his total commitment in every scene of the film), best supporting actor (Fassbender, for playing a brutal Southern slave owner), best supporting actress (N’yongo, for portraying a slave who endures heartbreaking brutality), best adapted screenplay (for John Ridley’s take on Solomon Northup’s 1853 autobiography of the same title) and best original score (Hans Zimmer).
The film — which also features fine work by Sarah Paulson, Michael Kenneth Williams, Paul Dano, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, Alfre Woodard, Garret Dillahunt, Adepero Oduye and Beasts of the Southern Wild stars Quvenzhane Wallis and Dwight Henry — is one of several 2013 awards contenders that tackle the subject of race in America, along with Fruitvale Station, Lee Daniels’ The Butler and 42.
Northrup’s story and the brutality he witnesses during his time as a slave would be tough viewing for anyone, but that’s McQueen’s greatest strength and what truly sets “12 Years” apart. McQueen has no fear in depicting the true savagery thrust upon American slaves by their owners. He won’t flinch in holding on the image, even if it’s graphically disturbing. Slavery was an inhumane evil that McQueen refuses to turn away from. The fact McQueen makes this creative decision early on allows one heartbreaking whipping scene near the end of the movie to effectively become the picture’s climax. The scene is filmed completely in one shot allowing the tension to build as you realize there will be no escape for the victim or the viewer. It’s obviously tough to watch, but also brilliantly realized. As producer and supporting cast member Brad Pitt noted in the film’s post-screening Q&A, the film is so intense it makes you “want to take a group walk around the block.” And, yes, that’s a good thing.
12 Years is refreshingly not a slave revolt movie. It is not the rhythmic fever dream of Hunger, and thankfully so. Because in this era we are far enough from Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, far enough from the Civil War. By keeping us firmly rooted in the tense twists and turns of a largely uncaring world, McQueen crafts a slave narrative filled with specific interiority and existential significance. We have little poetic respite—though Sean Babbitt’s cinematography is literally breathtaking—we have no comfort in the distance of poetry. We must be drawn through the minutiae of obstacle after obstacle, punishment after punishment, betrayal after betrayal.
Although Ridley sometimes writes his villains’ lines a little more broadly and obviously than needed, the overall mixture of period flavor with contemporary accessibility in the verbiage couldn’t be any better balanced. As for McQueen’s work, advance chatter had some wondering whether he had what it took to make a mainstream entertainment his third time around, but there won’t be much questioning of that after doubters see “12 Years a Slave.” It has the strokes you’d expect out of a studio picture but also some moments few other directors would have attempted, like an agonizingly beautiful sequence in which Solomon literally tip-toes his way through a near-hanging that goes on for several silent minutes. If McQueen could forge a career working arthouse moments into multiplex movies, that’d be a case of mistaken identity we’d be happy to live with.
There are echoes of the paranoid urgency and claustrophobic McQueen memorably built around a single setting in “Hunger,” but “Slave” carries them to a grander emotional scale. As Northup is thrust on to a boat with other frantic new captures, Hans Zimmer’s pulsating score compliments an intense montage of whispered exchanges between Northup and the other prisoners. The strength of the images shot by cinematographer Sean Bobbitt (“The Place Beyond the Pines”), first glimpsed in the prologue, provide an intricate clash of colors — from the sharp blues of the surrounding ocean to the murky shadows of the ship’s belly.
The overload of sights and sounds efficiently sets up the stakes at hand, with Northup struggling to adapt to a new set of rules: More experienced slaves tell him to remain mum about his literacy, keep his head down and follow each awful new order. But Northup, a prideful man with education and culture to spare, holds tight to a spirit of defiance. “I don’t want to survive,” he asserts. “I want to live.” That’s just the prelude to a movie in which Northup’s valiant convictions get tested again and again.