12 Years a Slave — 7/10

12 YEARS A SLAVE (2013, Steve McQueen)

As soon as people saw this thing in Toronto it was mega-hyped as the movie of the year. Best Picture Oscar seemed an inevitability, countless think pieces, rave reviews, huge Metacritic score — and for me, highly anticipated strictly on the basis of its director, who made my favorite movie of 2011. By those high expectations, 12 YEARS A SLAVE was a bit of a letdown. But it’s good and you should see it and get super sad and bummed out for a day.

Nobody will ever accuse McQueen of being a subtle filmmaker — HUNGER has a series of look-at-me setpieces and an incredibly bold, serious tone. SHAME is the same way and even sharper, more specific, and intense. But this film, perhaps because of the subject matter, suffers a bit from the heavy-handedness. It almost sinks under the weight of its own importance. Not that there was ever a place for levity or frivolity in this story, but still…

Characters are all painted in very broad strokes except for the hero. There’s the grieving mother, the evil slaveowner, the slightly less evil slaveowner, the stern housewife, the house Negro, etc. I wish the specificity of McQueen’s directorial eye extended to Ridley’s writing and characterization. The exceptions are of course Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Solomon, who deserves all the year-end awards he’ll get for Best Actor (he’s strong, vulnerable, sympathetic, conflicted, intelligent, and believable), and Lupita Nyong’o’s Patsey — an incredible debut performance. There is plenty of other good acting on display (The Newsroom/Homeland’s Chris Chalk, Michael Kenneth Williams, Paul Giamatti, Garret Dillahunt, etc.) but it’s in the service of some pretty obvious stuff. Fassbender is quite good as Epps but he struggles to add depth to a shallow role. The standout weak performance comes from Brad Pitt — partially not his fault, as the character is almost a device, and he can’t hide his movie star baggage in a small supporting role, but it distracted me nonetheless.

McQueen’s eye is still phenomenal, and Sean Bobbitt’s photography is exceptional (can’t wait to see what he does for Spike Lee in OLDBOY). A few images have lingered with me since I saw it yesterday. And indeed I still got choked up at several moments towards the end. But all that said, this isn’t a particularly challenging film. It’s a little obvious, it’s a lot heavy-handed, it’s quite self-serious, and it’s begging to be reckoned with. In other words, it’s a guaranteed Best Picture contender.

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