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," 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 the screenplay (with John Ridley) from the memoir of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a violinist living contentedly with his wife and two children in Saratoga Springs, New York in 1940. With his family called out of town for a fortnight, Solomon accepts a high-paying offer from two gentlemen to accompany them to 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 sent by train to 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 "12 Years" 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 Giamatti's jovial insinuations 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), a mother, despite her sobbed beseeches not to break up her family. When Eliza arrives at their home, still bawling, Mrs. Ford (Liza Bennett) 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. 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 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.
McQueen intersperses with such scenes exquisite, painterly exterior shots - not the comically green South of a travel brochure but a real and beautiful slice of nature tantalizingly close yet a world away from Solomon's fresh hell. I have commented elsewhere in this year-end review on the exceptional performances of Ejiofor, Fassbender, and Sarah Paulson as Epps' wife. The always terrific Alfre Woodard 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.