Movie review: Powerful “12 Years a Slave” packs brutal emotional punch

By Columbus Alive
From the October 31, 2013 edition

Given the subject matter of the film, it’s unsurprising to say that “12 Years a Slave” is moving, but it’s a testament to the filmmaking just how devastating the experience of watching it actually is.

Far beyond “Oscar bait” — although also sure to be a frontrunner in several categories — director Steve McQueen has crafted a slow-boiling drama that illustrates the literally dehumanizing nature of slavery in the United States.

“12 Years” tells the amazing true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man from upstate New York. A talented violinist, he is recruited to join a traveling festival, only to end up kidnapped and sold into slavery.

In this pre-Civil War setting, his life in the North and that in the South are of painfully stark contrast. His family left behind, Solomon becomes property of owners both surprisingly kind (Benedict Cumberbatch) and unflinchingly cruel (Michael Fassbender).

As Solomon’s saga drags on more than a decade, the brutality seems endless, his situation hopeless. Still, the underlying humanity Ejiofor and McQueen give the character make this a film that is hard to look away from, even when you feel like flinching.

I had high hopes for McQueen’s last film, the NC-17 sex-addiction drama “Shame,” but I found it didn’t live up to its buzz. “12 Years” has even greater buzz, and this one fulfills its promise. It’s not just an “important” film; it’s a damn good one.

Ejiofor is the anchor and soul of the film. His Solomon is a gentle man turned hard by his situation, and the flickering flame of hope that appears in his eyes is sometimes the only thing that makes watching this film bearable. Conversely, Fassbender’s personification of the cruelty of the slaver is a powder keg. Both have to be the early Oscar frontrunners.

The cavalcade of talented actors is both boon and bane to the film, as star-spotting can become almost distracting (especially a late appearance from Brad Pitt, who also served as the film’s producer).

This — and an occasionally overbearing score by Hans Zimmer — keep “12 Years” just a few notches below, say, “Gravity” on the year’s best list for me, but few films will leave you this emotionally drained at their conclusion.