If there’s one film to see this year, it’s 12 Years a Slave, a wrenching but rewarding historical epic.
12 Years a Slave
Sometimes we have to do hard things. I can’t think of a film in a recent memory I have been so compelled to sit through, wrestling all the while with how difficult it is to do so. 12 Years a Slave is, to put it simply, the first film to truly convey the horrors of what used to be called the “peculiar institution.” But it is such a brilliantly directed, written and performed piece of cinema, that every moment of the viewer’s struggle is rewarded.
The profoundly moving drama is based on a real-life memoir by Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free-born New Yorker kidnapped and sold into slavery in Louisiana. Solomon is the film’s true north, not just in the sense of his coming from a region where black people are free (though they still face discrimination), but that he is the film’s guiding moral compass, his dignity and strength the movie’s spine.
That’s a lot for an actor to carry, but Ejiofor does it subtly and beautifully. He has a long list of credits, from Kinky Boots and City of Men to American Gangster and Salt, but this is the role for which he’ll be celebrated. His wide eyes register everything from the shock of awakening drugged to find himself enchained, to the utter mortification of being stripped and sold for chattel. His character’s incredible journey begins with a slave master named Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) and ends with a psychopath called Epps (Michael Fassbender).
Epps is a tormented bastard, a sadist who lashes workers who don’t pick enough cotton, while using Scripture as his justification. He is obsessed with slave girl Patsey, played by the extraordinary newcomer Lupita Nyong’o, finding novel ways to make her pray for her own death. (Look for Nyong’o, along with the rest of the cast, to get plenty of awards season attention.) This is the kind of slave master we usually envision – cruel, starkly racist, evil personified, though Fassbender imbues him with enormous complexity. He’s so unlike the way we see ourselves that he’s easy to dismiss, but a director as savvy and talented as Steve McQueen (Shame) isn’t going to let us get off that easily.
Instead, he confronts us with Ford, a kindly master, who recognizes Solomon’s skill, both with the violin and carpentry, and praises and protects him. But that supposedly good, intelligent man also refuses to see the plain truth that Solomon was not born a slave, and set him free. In many ways, he is the embodiment of America’s ambivalence – its hypocrisy – with respect to race. He isn’t evil, he just lets evil transpire on his watch, as people have always done and continue to do. It’s easy to shrug and look at a man like Epps and point a finger of shame. Cumberbatch’s Ford forces us to look at ourselves.
That all works thanks to a lyrical, nuanced script from screenwriter John Ridley, and masterful direction from McQueen, who, it’s important to remember, is only on his third film. Though the movie stretches past the two-hour mark, it moves with intensity and purpose, bringing Solomon to the brink of despair as years stretch on away from his family. To his enormous credit, though, McQueen never suggests that Solomon is exceptional. We may occasionally shudder at the cruel irony that, as a free man, he never should have been enchained in the first place. But then the film brings us back to a point that should be obvious: No one deserves to suffer that indignity.
All Is Lost
It’s bewildering to realize that Robert Redford has never won an Oscar for acting. The man’s been onscreen since the Eisenhower administration, in films as iconic as The Candidate, All the President’s Men, The Sting and Out of Africa. He’s the Sundance Kid, for Pete’s sake! Here’s hoping All Is Lost gets him a little closer to a best actor win, particularly since he’s the whole movie.
I mean that literally, by the way, as he is the film’s entire cast. We meet his unnamed character, “Our Man” the credits call him, as he awakens to his fancy sailboat filling with water. There’s a hole gashed in the boat by an errant shipping container that’s also managed to take out the onboard computer system and flood the radio. Alone in the middle of the Indian Ocean, Our Man’s situation goes from bad to worse in a kind of waterlogged Gravity that never flags in intensity.
The odd thing is that apart from a letter to his family, we don’t hear much from Our Man –no prayers, no profound monologue on the meaning of life in the face of death. We just see his face and his determination. With nary a hint of a backstory, we know who he is, and that’s all due to Redford’s skill. Even with a character this reserved, we see his expressiveness and register his resolve and his fear. It’s a terrific performance in a nail-biter of a film. Don’t miss it.
But skip these:
I’m not opposed to remakes per se, but they do need to justify their existence. Carrie doesn’t bother, relocating the story to a modern-day high school and throwing in a cyberbullying plot, but otherwise adding nothing new. Chloë Grace Moretz takes Sissy Spacek’s role as the outcast high-school girl, sheltered to the point of disability by a religious zealot mom (Julianne Moore). She’s fine, but doesn’t have Spacek’s gift for radiating haunted, pained loneliness. The film doesn’t help her much, with scares that are neither more terrifying than the original, nor campier. Even the bloody prom isn’t as much fun as it used to be. In the end, Carrie is just a middling horror picture with nothing much to say for itself.
The Fifth Estate
Benedict Cumberbatch and Daniel Brühl try to bring the story of WikiLeaks to life, but watching two guys tap on computer keyboards for two hours isn’t exactly scintillating. The busy Cumberbatch, who’s in this week’s 12 Years a Slave and still has August: Osage County coming up this season, plays Julian Assange, founder of the infamous whistleblower website, while Brühl plays his acolyte Daniel Berg. Both men are great actors, but we never learn much about Assange or care much about Berg. The secrets they spill are fascinating – secrets that sent shudders through governments and multinational corporations – but they’re background for the devolving relationship between the two men. A movie about people so wildly daring shouldn’t be this much of a yawn.