Movie review: '12 Years a Slave,' 3.5 stars
Slavery is given uncompromising cinematic treatment in Steve McQueen's "12 Years a Slave," a clinical look at the sheer brutality of the experience. This is an epic set in the antebellum South, of course, but it avoids the usual Hollywood burnish of such an endeavor.
The adaptation of Solomon Northrup's autobiographical work follows the freeman's (Chiwetel Ejiofor) kidnapping into bondage and trying stint at two Southern plantations: The first is run by the refined Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) while the second is lorded over by the psychotic Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender).
McQueen ("Shame") fills the movie with horrifying images of beatings, verbal assaults and other dehumanizing moments. Mothers are separated from children; men and women are kicked and punched, beaten so hard that blood spurts from their backs. They are lynched in broad daylight.
McQueen refuses to look away; the stoic camera, opting for long takes and relatively little movement, shows us every gruesome detail.
This filmmaker specializes in stark portraits of addiction and alienation; here, he shows us a society that is diseased at its core, methodically siphoning away Solomon's dignity in a desperate bid to preserve a dying way of life.
Ejiofor anchors this portrait of despair. His Solomon wages a strong inner battle to retain his identity as a free citizen while it is methodically stripped away.
The most compelling drama occurs internally, as Solomon processes the unfathomable horrors unfolding before him.
McQueen brings urgency to the subject by depicting it with a documentarian's precision; there's no false Hollywoodized hope, only despair, in this cautionary portrait of humanity at its worst.
12 Years a Slave
Directed by Steve McQueen
Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Lupita Nyong'o