by: Eric J. Grimm

Directed by Steve McQueen. Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o, and Michael Fassbender.

Steve McQueen set out to make a film that accurately depicts the horrors of slavery and he seems to have succeeded. 12 Years a Slave is a tough watch with brutal acts of violence flooding the screen for over two hours. The total picture is a mixed bag of good intentions and artistic successes and failures. Where key lead performances are captivating, weak supporting performances nearly ruin the film. McQueen’s direction is often elaborate and drawn out and much of it doesn’t quite work in retrospect. It’s strengths left me impressed, but the potential for a sharper, fuller movie left me wanting.
The film’s biggest triumphs are the performances by Chiwetel Ejiofor as middle class free man turned slave, Solomon Northup, and Lupita Nyong’o as the tragically beautiful Patsy, who endures unwanted attention from her owners. Ejiofor sells his final scene with great skill and maybe some manipulation. His confusion, elation, and disappointment read perfectly on his face in a way Tom Hanks couldn’t convincingly do in Captain Phillips. Nyong’o, so striking and straightforward, never overdoes it with her tragic dialogue, making a whipping scene and rape all the more difficult to watch. Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson are suitably complex as evil slave owners. The way Paulson makes her own lisp sound menacing is particularly impressive.
Paul Dano, an actor I appreciate, but never really like, is shouty and rarely believable as a cruel overseer. His look and voice just aren’t suited to such a role. Quentin Tarnatino’s cracker casting in Django Unchained was far more effective for roles like Dano’s. Taran Killam and Scoot McNairy are laughable as kidnappers who force Solomon into slavery in the beginning of the film. The biggest misfire is Brad Pitt playing the white savior role. Pitt, also one of the film’s producers, phones it in, playing a southern version of himself, laid back and progressive. His presence really hurts the film.
Steve McQueen is working with material that sells itself, though his focus on the unending agony of the violent scenes comes at the expense of the story. He never has anything to say about Solomon’s class distinction either before or after this horrible period in his life. Despite long, often pretentious shots of violent and beautiful moments, I never got the sense that twelve years had passed. The film’s events might well have taken place over one cruel summer. McQueen’s keenness for shocking material is a good place to start, but he needs to work on his storytelling. Lingering on horrifying elements of human nature, even if framed beautifully, is not enough to do a story like this justice.