November 10, 2013

Movie Review: 12 Years a Slave

It was maybe a month or so ago that I first saw the trailer for 12 Years a Slave. Now, my tastes have been drifting away from the based on a true story type films, but that doesn't mean I am going to dismiss them. I just limit my exposure. Anyway, there was something about this that made me want to see it. The first reason was for star Chiwetel Ejiofor. The guy is a fantastic actor and I have enjoyed pretty much all I have seen him in. It is nice to see him in another lead role, I believe it is the first since he starred in David Mamet's Redbelt. Another reason would be for director Steve McQueen, I had heard good things but had not seen any of his films yet.

12 Years a Slave tells the story of the very real Solomon Northrup (Ejiofor), a born free black man living with his wife and children in Saratoga, NY. A fateful performing trip (he plays the violin) to Washington, DC, finds the free man kidnapped, chained and sold into slavery. He even loses his real name, being called Platt after being mistaken for a slave who did not survive the trip. What follows is a series of vignettes depicting the brutality of the era.

Along the way, we watch as Solomon slowly loses his identity as a free man and becomes Platt. This is combined with a variety of different views of the slave life. We see the inhumanity of the auction, the interesting partial humanity of the compassionate slave owner (Benedict Cumberbatch), the coward/bully overseer (Paul Dano), the erratic and cruel slaver (Michael Fassbender), and the abolitionist who puts himself at risk (Brad Pitt).

This is a fascinating and emotionally effective movie. However, I never really got the sense of the passage of time, and I feel like it was more a series of vignettes than a complete film. I did like the perspective, I do not believe I have ever seen a film from the perspective of a free man who had that stripped away. As effective as the sequences were and as effective as the sickening brutality, I do not feel we ever got a complete image of any of the characters, We are presented tone, atmosphere, and emotional content without full context. This isn't to say it is ineffective, it is quite effective, I just would have liked to see more character shine through, but that would be a different movie.

It is a very good movie, that much is certain. I do not think it is a great film. Actually, I was rather amused as I sat in the theater and listened to people gasp in horror when something bad happened. My thoughts were what did they expect was going to happen? This movie is not about the glamour of being a slave, it is about having your dignity, your freedom, your identity stripped from you, violently. It is not any sort of new revelation. As a matter of fact, this is probably a lot nicer than the reality.

The movie is shot beautifully, countering some natural landscapes with the ugliness of man's inhumanity to man. It has a flow that is never dull, never boring, and always emotionally intense. It features some good performances and is littered with familiar faces in often small roles.

As I left the theater I wondered if it was more difficult to act on the slave side or the slave owner side. Both roles require an immense investment from the actor. It cannot be easy. The idea of having to put myself into the mind of a slaver, like what Michael Fassbender does here, or Dicaprio in Django Unchained, just turns my stomach. Even knowing it is acting, I do not think I could bring myself to go to the lengths you need to in order to be convincing.

Now, while I do feel this is a good movie, it is not one that is going to invite me to revisit anytime soon, nor is it one I think is great. While the perspective is interesting one, my biggest takeaway was that slavery is bad. Which is, of course, something we already know and seems fairly obvious. 12 Years a Slave is a movie that seems to be courting the Oscar audience. It is the sort of movie that actors seem to seek out to stretch their serious sides, and hopefully get some performers noticed (something I hope works for Ejiofor, he really is a fine actor deserving of bigger roles). I will not argue the craft and the emotional investment, however, I am in a place that enjoyed more, a movie I saw the same night, a movie like About Time, which captivated me more with its tale of romance and time travel. But that's me and I am weird.

Still, it is a very good film I have no problem recommending.


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