Everything you've heard about "12 Years a Slave" is true.
That it's so horrific at points you'll need to turn away from the screen. That it will make you sob uncontrollably and render you emotionally spent. That it's an unflinching look at the cruel and nauseating reality of slavery, a bloody stain on American history.
But this, the best film of 2013 so far, is not intended to needlessly subjugate and brutalize its audience. British-born director Steve McQueen's uncompromising adaptation of Solomon Northrup's 1853 account of a free black man who's sold into slavery is not only damningly powerful, it's damn well important both historically and cinematically. The film takes an ugly topic that's too often been packaged in neatly sanitized snippets or told through the filtered perspective of a noble white bystander and gives it the voice, integrity and intensity it demands.
From the Oscar-caliber performances -- Chiwetel Ejiofor in the lead and Lupita Nyong'o and Michael Fassbender in supporting roles -- to the devastating images created by McQueen, "12 Years a Slave" is a modern cinematic masterpiece. Each role on-screen and off makes it stronger: Joe Walker's precise editing, Hans Zimmer's haunting soundtrack, the transformative production design by Adam Stockhausen and costume design by Patricia Norris.
We meet Solomon when he's living as a freed family man in New York during the pre-Civil War days. His nightmarish ordeal begins when he's kidnapped and sent to Louisiana, where he's turned into human livestock for 12 long years. Nothing is sugarcoated here -- the lashings, the beatings, the pokings, the proddings, the sheer ugliness of a white man at his worst. What does offer an ember of hope is how it shows the resilient spirit of a black man stuck in a freak show of moral decay.
Yes, "Slave" is demanding. Still, it's never gratuitous or sensationalized.
The sequence that hit me hardest is a long scene in which Solomon is seen strung up to a tree, gasping for air as his feet graze the ground just enough to keep him breathing. As this hideous torture show plays itself out, children romp nearby, enjoying the lovely day. Without a doubt, these contrasting images create one of most deeply disturbing scenes I've ever witnessed in a film.
McQueen is a bold director, allowing his camera to linger long enough to create an unsettling mood. He's also a provocateur, a man who latches onto grim topics -- from a starving British IRA activist ("Hunger") to a sex addict with sister issues ("Shame"). Both works were excellent but almost clinical in their emotional distance. "12 Years a Slave" puts you, me, all of us right into the shoes and the soul of Solomon.
That happens not only because of McQueen's direction, but Ejiofor's impassioned, vulnerable performance. Ejiofor ("Kinky Boots") has long been an actor on the cusp, and here he gets his breakout role. His Solomon is a smart guy, a violinist and proud family man who is sold to William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), a minister who fancies himself a benevolent master even as he callously separates one of his purchases (Adepero Oduye) from her children. Solomon works hard for William, but he lands in trouble when he gets into a fight with a creepy carpenter (Paul Dano).
He has been given the name Platt and eventually winds up on a plantation owned by Edwin Epps (Fassbender, in his most complex role yet), a sociopath who's married to a pseudo-pious woman (a frightening Sarah Paulson). Caught in the middle of this highly dysfunctional relationship is Patsey (Nyong'o, in a career-making performance), who is raped by Epps and traumatized endlessly by his wife. This awful couple subject Solomon and Patsey to unfathomable injustices, forcing Nyong'o and Ejiofor to go to dark places.
The one flaw with "Slave" comes in the form of Brad Pitt's character, Samuel Bass, and you sense screenwriter John Ridley struggling to further the story along with Pitt's abolitionist from Canada. While Pitt is fine, his dialogue is stiff, intended to be the bridge for the next development. Fortunately, it doesn't diminish the film's overall effect.
The greatest challenge McQueen's masterwork likely will encounter is a reluctance by the public to see such a disturbing film. But just as "Saving Private Ryan" revealed what life in the D-Day trenches was like, "Schindler's List" put us inside a Nazi concentration camp, and the 1977 miniseries "Roots" finally gave voice to the black experience in America, "12 Years a Slave" presents us with an unvarnished, uncensored and much-needed view of history.
This is not medicine for America to swallow; it's filmmaking of the highest caliber.
* * * *
Rating: R (for violence/cruelty, some nudity and brief sexuality)
Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong'o, Benedict Cumberbatch
Director: Steve McQueen
Running time: 2 hours, 13 minutes