12 Years a Slave’s brutally honest retelling of life in slavery induces cringes and gasps amongst audience members, but the film leaves us wondering if that’s all it has to offer. Directed by Steve McQueen, the film centers around the life of a free black man, Solomon Northup played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, who is kidnapped and sold into slavery. Along with Ejiofor, the film includes an all-star cast including Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Sarah Paulson, Paul Giamatti, Brad Pitt and Quvenzhané Wallis.
For just over two hours, McQueen puts the audience through hell with a constant stream of vivid violence on a much different level than, say, Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained.
While Tarantino uses gore and carnage to evoke an audience reaction, much of McQueen’s film uses the strong implications of sound to depict the brutality, from the cracking of whips to the thumping of clubs to decanters thrown at people’s heads.
Despite the diminished reliance on visual depictions of violence, 12 Years a Slave still evokes a reaction that leads many critics to compare it to the modern-day horror genre.
12 Years a Slave doesn’t seem to offer much more than two hours of bombarding viewers about the horrors of slavery.
Ejiofor’s character is boring, lacks dynamic and simply serves to guide the audience through the horrors instead of presenting any form of character or story arc. His Oscar buzz must be solely centered on three things: sweating, crying and being in a realistic slavery movie. Overall, Ejiofor is exactly the same in all of his films; he just cries and sweats more here.
Fassbender shows more range in his brutal depiction of the slave driver Edwin Epps, and although he isn’t a relatable character, he certainly is the most interesting.
Pitt’s role, on the other hand, is nothing to write home about. With a total of about five minutes of screen time, Pitt just needed to assure the audience that he can still save the day.
12 Years a Slave also struggles to pass itself off as a more artistic film. Most shots distract the viewer and pull them out of the film, which is the absolute worst thing for a film about a slave’s personal experience.
The film also refrains from dialogue in many points at which some is expected and adds dialogue that isn’t even intelligible at other points. A word of advice: If it’s unintelligible, it’s probably not important.
There’s a very narrow target audience for 12 Years a Slave. If you can get past the brutal violence, unintelligible dialogue, lack of dynamism, ridiculous cameos, distracting camera movements and focus, full nudity, sweating, crying, singing and the most annoying soundtrack in movie history, then this is the film for you.
Despite this harsh criticism of the film, it is certainly worth Oscar nomination, but nothing more. Fassbender’s performance is perhaps the only aspect of this film that deserves an Oscar win, and that’s giving a lot of leeway.
This is a great film in its own respect, but it’s not an excellent film. Something appears to be missing from the film that suppresses any form of significant climax. If it could focus on something other than shock and awe, then it would be a truly exceptional film.