Brutal and bleak, "12 Years a Slave" is an infuriating, fact-based story of a free man, living a good life in upstate New York, who was duped, kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841.
In a bravura performance catapulting him to the Oscar shortlist, Chiwetel Ejiofor ("Amistad") plays educated musician and family man Solomon Northup, whose 1853 autobiography chronicles the dozen hell-on-earth years he survived as a slave. Called Platt on two Louisiana plantations, he couldn't protest his circumstances, had to keep not only his identity a secret but never display his education, and endure appalling conditions. No one believes his story until one man who can actually do something does, but it takes an incredulous 12 long years of unspeakable horror before he can be free again.
This unfathomable nightmare in pre-Civil War America is vividly told by intense director Steve McQueen, whose in-your-face style is polarizing, but he has gained acclaim for his previous movies "Hunger," about Irish IRA rebel Bobby Sands' hunger strike and "Shame," about a man's destructive sexual addiction.
The depravity and cruelty depicted is so graphic that it is often unbearable to watch -- sadistic whippings, beatings, rapes and taunts. The slaves are treated like livestock, and the dehumanizing images are disturbing -- in fact, it's hard to contain our outrage at times.
The London-born Ejiofor's acting is a masterpiece of control. Everything he's thinking and feeling is right there, telegraphed on his face, through his eyes. His character's dignity is not lost, he doesn't give up his fight, but he is forever altered by witnessing unspeakable horrors. A scene where he must stay focused to avoid a hanging is absolutely devastating. Known equally for his stage work (an acclaimed Othello opposite Ewan McGregor's Iago) and film (Independent Spirit Award for "Talk to Me" in 2007), Ejiofor is someone everyone will know about during the upcoming awards season.
His performance is just one of several that sear into your conscious during the film. Michael Fassbender, as the vile cotton plantation owner Epps -- who truly believes he can do anything he wants to his 'property' -- scorches the screen as a self-righteous mad monster, a drunkard driven to extremes who mentally, emotionally and physically abuses nearly everyone around him. Driven to the most loathsome behavior by his malevolent wife (Sarah Paulson), who is jealous of his attention to a hard-working slave girl named Patsey, Fassbender gives us a terrifying view of this misguided ruling class.
As Patsey, Lupita Nyong'o breaks your heart, giving a desperate, emotional, harrowing performance. Her punishment and pleas for mercy shake one's core.
The ensemble features so many well-known actors that it's almost a surprise when Brad Pitt, also a producer, shows up in the latter third of the film. He's the saint among sinners, almost too good to be true. The guys who keep the slave trade thriving -- Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano -- underscore the cowardice and ignorance of the era.
Man's inhumanity to man has been on display in many films, but this powerful movie doesn't flinch, like 'Schindler's List." John Ridley's uncluttered script is bold and brave, and director McQueen exhibits confidence and determination. The contrast between the beauty of the South and the squalor of the slave's daily life is emphasized.
What Doesn't Work
There are a few rare acts of kindness. This movie is tough stuff, and not everyone can take the shocking visuals. One can't ignore what really happened, but one doesn't need to see such excessive, unrelenting violence -- we get the point as it is hammered over and over and over.
An important film that tightens its grip as it moves along, "12 Years a Slave" will stay in people's memories for a long time.
Three and a half
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Lupita Nyong'o, Alfre Woodard, Sarah Paulson
Director: Steve McQueen
Rated: R for violence/cruelty, some nudity and brief sexuality