Wednesday, October 23, 2013

12 Years a Slave

Great scenes make great films.

The best directors get that. Take Quentin Tarantino, who in "Inglourious Basterds" and "Django Unchained" gave us set pieces that will live forever in our movie memories. With "12 Years a Slave" (which would make an amazing double feature with "Django"), Steve McQueen plants his flag in such exalted company. This is a breathtakingly assured, commanding piece of work, an absolute must-see for any lover of film. 

McQueen adapted (with John Ridley) the screenplay from the memoir of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a violinist living contentedly with his wife and two children in Saratoga Springs, New York in 1840. With his family called out of town for a fortnight, Solomon accepts a high-paying offer from two gentlemen to accompany them to Washington, D.C. and play for their traveling circus. At dinner at a hotel in the capital, the men ply him with drink and he takes ill, retiring early to his room. 

He awakens in a tangle of chains, in a scene of existential terror. He has been enslaved and is bound for a plantation in New Orleans, where the overseers quickly disabuse him of his identity as a free man - they rename him Platt - and put him to work picking cotton. There's no substitute for knowledge of one's subject, and this movie knows the how to and how much of picking cotton: what must be cut, what shucked, what whittled down, the 200 pounds required of every able-bodied male slave each day. 

Platt is first sold to the relatively sympathetic Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) by Freeman, a slave trader played by Paul Giamatti in one of several supporting performances worthy of recognition. Never before have his jocular unabashedness and insinuating confidences borne such evil. Freeman tells Ford and the others browsing his wares, "What catches your fancy, inspect at your leisure," and calls on one slave to demonstrate his physical condition by kicking his legs to the height of a bar again and again in rhythm. Ford also purchases Eliza (Adepero Oduye of 2011's great "Pariah"), a mother, despite her sobbing beseeches not to break up her family. Liza Bennett as Mrs. Ford is given the toughest line in the movie; when Eliza arrives, still bawling, she tells her to have something to eat and get some rest: "Your children will soon be forgotten." The line cut through the audience like a shiv. 

Platt soon runs afoul of the vindictive overseer Tibeats (Paul Dano), always itching for a reason to inflict some unholy brutality on one of his charges, and is traded by Ford, in settlement of a debt, to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), who believes that punishing his slaves for insufficient industriousness is God's work: "40, 50, 150 lashes - that's Scripture." Epps allows Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o), the slave woman he rapes, certain privileges - she picks fecklessly at the cotton in the field, yet is credited with 500 or more pounds a day - but when, on a Sunday, she visits the neighboring Shaw plantation (to borrow soap; she tells Epps she reeks so badly she makes herself nauseous), his jealousy passes the boiling point. He ties her to a post and takes his belt to her over and over and over, leaving a lattice of obscenely deep welts, then compels Platt to take over for him. This is one of the most gut-wrenching and unforgettable scenes in recent film.

Fassbender will rightly receive an Oscar nomination for his characteristically intense performance, as will Ejiofor, who brings sunken-eyed sadness, abiding dignity, and fierce intelligence to Solomon, but I hope the Academy also takes notice of Sarah Paulson as Epps' wife, a gurgling cauldron of hatred for the slave woman who commands her husband's sexual attentions. (When she demands that he sell Patsey, he tells her in no uncertain terms that he would jettison her for Patsey in a heartbeat.) Among the plethora of first-rate work, Paulson may be the breakout star here, imparting malice and danger with a mere puckering of her lips and a tightening of her cheeks. The beloved veteran Alfre Woodard also makes the most of her scene as Shaw's former slave turned mistress. She addresses Solomon as "Nigger Platt," and explains the moral compromise that has her sitting in the big house sipping tea on the Sabbath. 

McQueen intersperses with these scenes of harrowing violence exquisite, painterly exterior shots - not the comically green South of a travel brochure but a real and beautiful slice of nature tantalizingly close but a world away from Solomon's fresh hell. What keeps "12 Years a Slave" from four full stars is that we don't get to spend enough time with him and his family before the events of the film. As written, he's a sum of his circumstances and what personality Ejiofor is able to fill in. I understand why McQueen chose this route - the details of Northup's later years and death remain unknown, and the lack of backstory allows him to stand for others whom this fate befell - but this story is so exceptional (once you hear the one-sentence treatment, you're hooked) that I wish I knew more of the man.

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