There are movies every year that just hit you like a ton of bricks where you can’t look away in spite of some of the emotionally painful and hard images being seen on screen. 12 Years a Slave is one of those movies and it is a damn near masterstroke of filmmaking.
Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free man making his living as a musician. After accepting a job offer from two men to play for a traveling circus, he soon finds himself kidnapped, transported to the South and sold into slavery. Forced to take a new name, he is thrown together with other enslaved African Americans, each suffering the horrors of a gruelling life of abuse and servitude. However for Northup, there is the added nightmare of remembering the freedom and identity recently enjoyed.
With his third film, Steve McQueen goes big for some excellent results. It’s a personal story told on a large scale and McQueen paints a brilliantly stark picture of life back then and leaves us with some revelatory moments. The script from John Ridley bristles with tension even in those moments where it gets away from itself as it has such a grand scope. Part of that was by design as certain moments were meant for us to linger over to the point of it being terribly uncomfortable to watch. Despite being over cast with far too many familiar faces, it doesn’t take away from some brilliant performances.
After years of supporting roles Chiwetel Ejiofor finally has a leading man part that he can sink his teeth into. He makes Solomon not as a caricature, but as a man simply trying to do anything and everything possible to survive. Michael Fassbender is simply chilling as slave owner Edwin Epps and oozes viciousness at every turn. He’s amazing to watch as he brings this truly flawed, yet wholly unredeemable man to life. The likes of Brad Pitt, Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch, Sarah Paulson, Paul Dano and Alfre Woodard make appearances, but it is the interplay between Fassbender and Ejiofor that truly make this gripping story come to life.
While 12 Years a Slave might not be McQueen’s best work it will certainly bring more eyes to all the immense talent involved in this story and will only get better with age.
Rating: ****1/2 (out of 5 stars)