Horrific Roots: Tough, powerful "12 Years a Slave" never pulls a single punch

12 Years a Slave (2013) 
133 min., rated R.

No offense to the more commercially accessible "Lee Daniels' The Butler," but "12 Years a Slave" makes that other race-based film look like a Walt Disney special. With 2008's "Hunger" and 2011's "Shame," artist-turned-filmmaker Steve McQueen makes the films he wants to make and knows what he wants, and that willfulness is most effective here. Tough, raw, and powerfully cathartic, "12 Years a Slave" is unflinching without verging on gratuitous or exploitative and gut-wrenching without turning into emotional pornography. Mainstream audiences should know that the film is never easy to watch, inducing a wince from every agonizing lash, paddling and racial epithet but impossible to look away from. Who would want to watch a bogus, cowardly depiction of such an ugly, shameful time in American history anyway? If Quentin Tarantino took free artistic license with last year's "Django Unchained," an unapologetically pulpy (and no less than emotionally robust) revenge fantasy, McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley adapt the 1853 memoir of Solomon Northrup for this year's feel-bad movie of the year with only a twinkle of hopeful but unsentimental relief in the end.

Chiwetel Ejiofor, who leads the way in a nuanced, soulful performance, plays Solomon Northup, an educated, well-to-do free man with a wife and two children in Saratoga, New York, in 1841. Lured by two charismatic artists (Scott McNairy, Taran Killam) to play violin in a traveling gig over one night in Washington, D.C., he is drugged and sold into slavery. Additionally robbed of his identity and renamed "Platt," Solomon is transported to New Orleans and purchased by plantation owner William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), who at least treats him with compassion and provides him with a violin. But before Solomon can be lynched by despicable carpenter Tibeats (Paul Dano), Ford sells him to abusive, slave-driving cotton grower Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) and his equally cruel wife (Sarah Paulson). All Solomon can do is hold onto a sliver of hope that he can regain his freedom and return home to his family after twelve years.

As shown in his previous works, director McQueen isn't out to tug our heartstrings but to tell stories that are cold and surgical in approach. Instead of clobbering us with musical cues that tell us when and how to feel, the filmmaker just stands back and lets this necessary story unfold through his canvas without softening the psychological and physical cruelty and atrocities. Formerly an artist, McQueen doesn't give up his fondness for eloquent subtlety and long, unbroken takes, which, in context, leave a forceful impact here. In one instance where Solomon is hanged within an inch of his life, with just enough mud at his feet to keep himself from choking, the director and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt admirably hold the shot for an excruciating few minutes. The whipping scenes, especially when Solomon is forced to beat one of his own, are unblinkingly intense and brutally blunt, making them as painful and upsetting as they must have been. We feel every sting. Eerily enhancing the dread of the antebellum Deep South, Hans Zimmer's chill-inducing, foghorn-reliant score always supports the story instead of the other way around. When a grossly scalding slave song uncomfortably plays longer than expected over a church-service sequence as an unsettling counterpoint, it scars you just as much as watching the explicit human suffering.

This is hardly a film that calls attention to casting movie stars in supporting roles, however, the ensemble is sterling, even when most of them are playing inhumane sub-human beings. As the masters, Cumberbatch leavens the film with the first dollop of humanity, while Fassbender is startlingly pitiless and Paulson quietly chilling as the sadistic Master and rigid Mistress Epps who treat their slaves like livestock. Also, Paul Giamatti is as blood-boilingly hateful as the other Paul (Dano) as the slave trader ("My sentimentality extends the length of a coin" comes from his own lips); Alfre Woodard is strong in one scene as Mistress Harriet Shaw, a former slave who's now the wife of a white plantation owner; and Brad Pitt, also serving as a producer, is quite fine as an empathetic Canadian laborer who becomes the forward-thinking voice of reason. Newcomer Lupita Nyong'o's courageous, shattering performance makes a lasting impression as free-spirited slave Patsey, who suffers being the object of Epps' infatuation (she is prized for picking the most cotton and then raped at night by him) and loathed by his wife. Adepero Oduye ("Pariah"), though given only a few scenes, is also heartbreaking, etching herself into one's mind as a black woman forced to be separated from her children.

Since this year's Telluride Film Festival and Toronto International Film Festival, "12 Years a Slave" has already become 2013's "prestige picture" and hailed as a masterpiece. It might not be outright greatan even longer cut might have smoothed over the passage of twelve years and the unrelenting bleaknessbut it's extraordinarily close to great and will hit a raw nerve for sure. A searing work of art that passes more as a historical horror film than preachy eat-your-broccoli cinema, it's certainly a must-see, which, perhaps, only needs to be seen once. Even if it's for the most demanding, tough-skinned viewer, "12 Years a Slave" is unshakably harrowing, worth the effort, and too indispensable to ignore. It wouldn't be out of the question to be required viewing in high school history classes, either. 

Grade: A -