By: Greg Maier
As the immediate Oscar front runner after its Telluride Film Festival premier, I had anticipated 12 Years a Slave more than most films this year. Early awards season predictions aside, I had very much admired director Steve McQueen‘s first two features Hunger (2008) and Shame (2011), both of witch feature classic leading performances from Michael Fassbender (Prometheus, 2012). Reflecting on 12 Years a Slave, Fassbender and McQueen deliver the goods yet again in terms of their technical performances, but the film’s impression just doesn’t quite match the deeply personal and emotional truths of McQueen’s freshman and sophomore efforts.
In their third collaboration, Fassbender is phenomenal in McQueens new movie as the villainous slave owner Edwin Epps, but for the first time is not the film’s leading actor. Instead, the lead is helmed by the formally unknown Chiwetel Ejiofor (Children of Men, 2006). The talented up and comer plays Solomon Northup, a free black man living in New York who is kidnapped and sold into slavery in the south for a twelve year period. His performance is more than noteworthy and is comprised of heavy and genuine emotional pain contrasted with deep physical abuse and suffering as his character is put through both ringers. Solomon not only loses his freedom, he is also forced to leave behind his wife and children, who are not able to track him down after his real name is disregarded as nonsense and is then referred to only by the name Platt. The majority of the film focuses on Solomon’s time living on a number of southern slave plantations where McQueen forces the audience to bear witness to horrible acts of insensitive violence filmed against a beautifully poetic and photogenic 1840s period setting.
I feel that 12 Years a Slave is certainly an above average film for 2013, but somewhere along the line falls short of its potential. Perhaps it is a little overly Hollywood despite being led by a relative unknown actor. The cast includes some Hollywood heavy hitters including Paul Giamatti (Sideways, 2004), Paul Dano (There Will be Blood, 2007), Benedict Cumberbatch (Star Trek Into the Darkness, 2013), and Brad Pitt (Inglorious Bastards, 2009). Perhaps it’s because the brutality of the film based on its subject matter ended up being slightly less than what I was expecting. There are two exceptionally haunting scenes that are both done in one long cut, but otherwise I felt that the film was relatively tame compared to Hunger and Shame. I think most of all it was poor decisions in the editing room that ultimately keeps this very good film from being a great one. There are a number of unnecessary establishing shots that slow down the pace and the elliptical editing does a poor job of portraying the illusion of twelve years actually passing.
I enjoyed 12 Years a Slave, but can’t help but feel a little let down in the end. Though I think the film deserves many nominations and I admire the layers of detail put into this film, I still wouldn’t award a Best Picture, Best Actor or Best Director Oscar to the talented artists who made this picture because I know that they can do better. Undoubtedly the critical success of this film will perpetuate UK artist Steve McQueen’s filmmaking career to new heights and I look forward to going to a theater in the near future to see what he’s coming with next. With the growing number of half-hearted Hollywood franchises and terrible B movies being made every year, it’s comforting to know that there are still serious artists working in the film medium who are willing to take a risk with a story just to generate a reaction.