Monday, October 28, 2013

Punishing "12 Years a Slave" rewards viewers' pains


directed by Steve McQueen
starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Sarah Paulson, Lupita Nyong’o, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Alfred Woodard, Brad Pitt

It’s tempting to attach a warning label to “12 Years a Slave” for those who haven’t seen it: That it’s difficult, even painful to watch. That it’s a grueling indictment of humanity, or rather, inhumanity, at its worst. That the violence is relentless and graphic, and not in that cartoony Quentin Tarantino way, but in a way that feels all too real and thus all the more sickening. All true—and yet to brand the film thus is to make it sound like an ordeal, an experience to endure rather than enjoy, which is also to misrepresent and undersell it. Director Steve McQueen’s adaptation of the memoir of Solomon Northrup, a free black man who was kidnapped, shipped downriver and sold into slavery for the titular 12 years, isn’t exactly built for enjoyment, but neither is it unalloyed suffering. In moving quietly between moments both appalling and poignant, it achieves a dark beauty and emotional resonance without offering the easy catharsis one might expect from the knowledge that Solomon’s indenture does, eventually, come to an end.

Maybe it took a Brit to bring the right balance of empathy and objectivity to the “peculiar institution” that continues to cast long shadows over our national identity. It’s somehow appropriate that British artist-turned-director McQueen (“Hunger,” “Shame”) depicts both the physical and psychological toll of slavery from the viewpoint of a man who at the outset is just as much a stranger to its horrors as the audience is. As Solomon, Chiwetel Ejiofor (a fellow Brit, who previously did his best work in indie films such as “Dirty Pretty Things,” “Kinky Boots,” “Children of Men,” and “Talk to Me”) conveys through both body language and wide, expressive eyes the rapid shift from sunny complacency to stunned disbelief and, finally, a semi-permanent internalized anguish that hangs over him for the rest of his time as a slave.

In some ways the early going is, if not the hardest, at least the most shocking for Solomon, as for us. Think of it: an educated, comfortably middle-class professional musician with a wife and two children finds himself incapacitated, imprisoned, and thrust unceremoniously into a nightmare world where nothing of his previous identity, not even his name, is recognized. He’s viciously beaten to a pulp in response to his attempts to clear up what he’s initially convinced is a mix-up; coolly, almost impersonally slapped by a slave trader (Paul Giamatti, effective in a small but chilling role) when he dares to assert his real name; and forced to stand by in silence while said trader shows off his human wares like so much livestock and separates a mother from her children without batting an eye at her frantic pleas.

From that beginning, things only get worse. While Solomon’s first master, William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), recognizes his superior talents and treats him relatively well, that goodwill only goes so far when Solomon runs afoul of one of Ford’s white hired workmen (Paul Dano, even more punchable than usual). Solomon is ultimately sold to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a New Orleans cotton planter legendary for his Simon Legree-like cruelty to his slaves. It’s at this point that Solomon’s life becomes even more of a fever dream, as Epps, in addition to being merciless, is also quite possibly insane—forcing his slaves to entertain him by night with singing and dancing after a day of backbreaking labor, fixating obsessively on a young female slave, Patsy (newcomer Lupita Nyong’o, outstanding) despite the burning resentment of his wife (Sarah Paulson, also outstanding), and nursing paranoid fears that his slaves are conspiring to run away from him. Fassbender is a formidable and oddly magnetic presence, his performance suggesting that Epps’ status as slave owner is eating away at him like a cancer, even though his slaves feel its impact most directly and deeply. No slave feels it more than the all-too-aptly named Patsy, and her horrific treatment is almost too much for the film to bear.

But it holds up, thanks to McQueen’s characteristic restraint. I’ll admit that his previous films left me a bit cold; to me they felt like exquisitely crafted, clinically detached portrayals of human compulsion that never quite hit home because they were so detached. Here, perhaps for the first time, McQueen locates a throbbing emotional pulse, yet his instincts as an artist still tend towards the observational rather than the red-hot jugular. In this context, that impulse works: the scenes of abuse are unsparingly but not gratuitously brutal, and attentive to their impact on everyone involved—not just Patsy but Epps, his wife, and, of course, Solomon. And again, there is no cheap catharsis, no release of tension, only the quietly agonizing realization that unlike Solomon, who has resources they don’t, neither Patsy nor any of the other slaves have any hope of escape other than a premature death. (One of the most gut-wrenching scenes in the film is one in which an old slave simply drops dead in the fields and is buried with minimal ceremony; one look at Solomon’s expression says it all—the crushing fear that this might be the best he can hope for himself, now.)

By the same token, Solomon’s long-delayed liberation, when it comes, feels strangely muted rather than joyful. And that’s as it should be. “12 Years a Slave,” despite its broad narrative arc, isn’t really a hero’s quest. It’s one man’s experience of an institution that killed millions and almost killed him, too. It’s Solomon Northrup’s story, but in McQueen’s hands and for our times, it’s just as much the story of the men and women Solomon had to leave behind.



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