Director Steve McQueen has gathered a talented cast, a compelling plot
idea, and a wonderful cinematographer and then snuffed the life from
them with his clinical, detached directing style that robs what should
be the most affecting movie of the year and turns it into a plodding,
emotionless, historical biopic.
Despite the valiant efforts of Chiwetel Ejiofor and especially newcomer Lupta Nyong'o, this drama about a musician who is duped, drugged and sold into slavery never manages to find an emotional chord.
Like last year's Oscar-bait, "Les Miserables," the film is often told in long, steady pan shots or a continuous array of distracting close-ups of actors filled with angst or anger. And the film finds no rhythm in its editing to make these extremes work. Even the most harrowing scenes in "12 Years," and there a plenty of them to choose from, lack dramatic tension. One may as well be watching an accident filmed on a surveillance camera on the local news, because that's how detached McQueen's film style is (which also killed his over-praised "Shame," for me as well.)
Some have likened "12 Years a Slave" to "Schindler's List," but for emotional wallop, there is no comparison. "Schindler's List" is in every way, from script to score, the vastly superior movie: not only shocking but truly emotional and with actual drama.
John Ridley's screenplay has a few fine dynamics, but quite frankly in the end all the characters in the film end up being (literally) too black or white. Even the few characters (like Benedict Cumberbatch's Ford or Garrett Dillahunt's Armsby) who seem to have shades of gray, of course turn out to be turn-coats. Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson get two roles that feature them being evil incarnate, to the point you expect Fassbender to twirl his mustache at times. But again, any kind of shading the actors may have tried to play gets lost with McQueen's endless habit of sticking the camera repeatedly into the actor's faces.
"12 Years" is by no means an awful movie, but I think hype surrounding it in the press will lead to disappointment in movie goers who are expecting an amazing visceral tale, and are deceived into getting a stagnant and clinical examination of some of the darkest days of American history. Members of the audience I saw the movie with began talking half-way through and some people were overheard saying, "How can they make this subject so dull?" as they headed for the exit.
Based on an incredible true story of one man's fight for survival and freedom. In the pre-Civil War United States, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man from upstate New York, is abducted and sold into slavery. Facing cruelty (personified by a malevolent slave owner, portrayed by Michael Fassbender), as well as unexpected kindnesses, Solomon struggles not only to stay alive, but to retain his dignity. In the twelfth year of his unforgettable odyssey, Solomon's chance meeting with a Canadian abolitionist (Brad Pitt) will forever alter his life.
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