I have to admit, I’m honestly torn here. Figuring out how to honestly address the concerns that I have with a film that many have lauded as one of the most important films of our time is difficult, but being honest is the most important thing that anyone can be when compiling their thoughts on a film. What’s the point in writing a review if you’re merely going to cower to what everyone else is saying in an attempt to be liked? But, in the same way that I am torn at the idea of writing this review, I’m also torn with regards to the film itself, a film that had all the right intentions and the right storyline and yet failed in so many areas due to the mishandling of key attributes by the film’s director, Steve McQueen.
That actually really hurt me to say.
I’ve been intrigued by McQueen’s career since his first feature film in 2008, ‘Hunger’. He had such a harsh and dominating style, one that drew you in to each solitary moment and held you there, sometimes for extended moments, to make you feel each and every fiber of the film. ‘Shame’ was a brilliant depiction of suffering, addiction and anguish and was filmed with such precision, necessary detachment and obvious passion. When it was announced that McQueen’s next film was going to be ’12 Years a Slave’ it was instantly one of my most anticipated of 2013. Often, the complaint thrown at films of this nature is that they are too sentimental and because of that they lack the harsh realism needed to make these stories truth telling. McQueen seemed like the perfect voice, because his sentimental values have always been subtle; instead offering us a coldness that felt more honest.
First, I want to express that ’12 Years a Slave’ is not a bad film at all. In fact, there is a lot to really admire about it. The story is a powerful one. Solomon Northrup, a free man living in New York, is betrayed by men appearing as friends, drugged and ultimately sold into slavery with no way of defending himself. He becomes a hired hand in Louisiana, tossed around from slave owner to slave owner because of his obvious learned background and his pent up frustrations (and refusal to be a dog). For 12 years he lived in slavery before his story was properly heard and passed along the proper channel and he was able to be reunited with his wife and children. This is a story that needed to be told, and one that I’m happy was told. As far as his story goes, it is told relatively well thanks to a beautiful performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor, who anchors this movie with such complete awareness of character.
But I’ll get back to that in a minute.
I say that his story is told relatively well because outside of Ejiofor’s performance, the story, I feel, is somewhat mishandled. McQueen’s approach to this film is vastly different from the way he attacked his previous two features, and I’m not sure if that was intentional, but there is something amiss here. When it was first announced that this film was being made, I declared that there was no way this was going to be an Oscar player. McQueen is too harsh a filmmaker, too honest. There is no way that the Academy, a body made up largely of elderly white men, is going to embrace a film about the harsh realities of racism and slavery. I was baffled when it started to pick up such steam in the race for Best Picture of the Year, but now that I’ve seen the film, it all makes sense.
This is Steve McQueen’s ‘Schindler’s List’.
I know that that doesn’t sound like a particularly bad thing, and in all honesty I do feel that ‘Schindler’s List’ is a very good film (I even said earlier in this review that this was a good film as well), but I have always felt detached from ‘Schindler’s List’ for a very specific reason, and it is the same reason that I feel detached from McQueen’s film; it’s far too clinical. ’12 Years a Slave’ tries too hard to be too perfect, too correct, but unlike ‘Schindler’s List’, not everyone in this film is up to the task of conveying this ‘correctness’, and because of that the film starts to falter.
While the entire cast has been lauded by critic after critic, there were only two performances here that I felt were honest enough, or grounded enough, to survive McQueen’s direction; Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o. These two performances held such authenticity in their movements. Ejiofor, as I mentioned above, is so aware of his character. He understands every layer of the man, and this is scene in the way he soaks in his surroundings in those giants wells he calls eyes. You can read every inner thought, and those thoughts are never ‘how do I act this scene’ (unlike a few of his co-stars). Instead, Ejiofor is living this performance. Some have commented that he is merely a walking ghost, but Northup WAS a ghost, for 12 years, constantly living in the horrors of loss and carrying the fear of death on his shoulders. What I found particularly alarming (in a good way) about Ejiofor’s performance was that you could sense his character not only taking in HIS surroundings, but also taking in the realities of a world he didn’t give much thought to before. He was a free black man. He had a job and a family and a home and was respected and beloved by men and women, black and white. While this was an atrocious situation for him to find himself, you can see that he is finally becoming aware of a world much larger than he was himself.
It is a true testament to the strength of this narrative that I am actually finding myself WANTING to like this movie more than I do as I’m writing this review.
Being honest can be hard.
Anyways, Nyong’o is the only other actor I felt reached Ejiofor’s depths (maybe not quite as deep, but close) of earthy realism. While many have criticized her performance for the very thing I’m criticizing this film for (trying too hard), I was truly moved by every hand gesture, every cringe, every single movement. It may have all been calculated (and I won’t deny that it was) but it felt so fluid and authentic, which is NOT the case with those around her.
Yes, I’m talking about Michael Fassbender, Alfre Woodard, Sarah Paulson, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Adepero Oduye and especially Brad Pitt (what in the WORLD was he doing?) and pretty much everyone in this film aside from the aforementioned and Benedict Cumberbatch. These performances felt too correct, too exact and because of that they feel forced, inauthentic and take me out of the film itself. Fassbender in particular (an actor I LOVE and have declared THE actor of his generation) is so out of his depth here. You can see him attempting to ‘portray’ in every scene as opposed to just living this character. It always feels like a performance. The whipping scene in particular is so disengaging, which is highlighted even more because both Nyong’o and Ejiofor are so IN that moment that when Fassbender comes over yelling and screaming and ACTING it almost made me cringe.
There are no words for what Brad Pitt did in this film. It was honestly a disgrace and one of the worst scenes in any film I’ve seen this year. It wasn’t even just his performance itself, which was awful, but the phrasing of the scene itself which felt so forced and abrupt.
That is another issue I have with ’12 Years a Slave’. There is absolutely NO consciousness of time here. 12 years come and go and for all I know it was a really long weekend. No one ages, no one truly grows, everything pretty much stays the same from scene one to scene whatever and it just all felt so singular. Maybe this was intentional. Maybe the idea was to make these 12 years feel like one elongated nightmare, but the passing of time is what would have made the trials heaped on Northup feel all the more harrowing, and so I think this element is a truly important one, and one that significantly hurt this film.
And then there is the actual harshness of the film. I’m not saying that I wanted ‘Passion of the Christ’ style gore here (and, for the record, I’ve never seen that film but know of its reputation) but I will say that I expected something more from McQueen in the depiction of the brutal realities of slavery. Maybe this should be linked alongside my issues with the film’s ‘correctness’, but it felt as if McQueen was holding back so much for fear of alienating his core audience; white people. I won’t say that he white washed this or sugar coated anything, and then again maybe I am. Outside of the fact that they were slaves (and the whipping scene and the scene where Paulson’s character threw a bottle of alcohol at Nyong’o’s face) this film never seemed to get into the gritty truth about the treatment of these people, and that is a shame. Even the rape scene felt oddly reserved.
For all of these criticisms, I’ve said and will continue to say that ’12 Years a Slave’ is a good film. Its Oscar win is actually understandable under the circumstances. This was a way for Hollywood to say ‘what was done was wrong’ on their own terms, and it does get the point across. Hollywood loves a technically ‘perfect’ film that allows them to detach and not really ‘feel’ but still act like they do.
Coming down to actually giving this movie a grade was harder than I thought it would be. Honestly, I liked this despite the issues (many issues) I had with McQueen's direction, and I did feel as though it made some sound points, but I can't ignore those issues entirely. I'm handing this a B+, but I'll admit that I'm tempted to go lower. Looking over my personal grades given out to other films this year though, I'm not to sure I want to say that 'We're the Millers' was a better film that this one.