Film Review: 12 Years a Slave

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Plot: Based on a true story set in pre-Civil War, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free black man who is kidnapped and sold into slavery. Solomon yearns for freedom and to be reunited with his family, as he endures the hardships of slavery, spending most of his slave years under the harsh ownership of Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender).

There’s a whole lot to trek through with 12 Years a Slave. It is an exhausting film, and I don’t mean that simply because of the subject matter, but rather its inconsistencies. There are times when it’s absolutely heart-wrenching, filled with great cinematic moments. But for every great moment, the film is plagued with a lot of overacting, repetition, and a really flat protagonist. The movie starts out pretty rough, so I guess we should start there.

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We are basically thrust right into the story, and it’s a little jolting at first. Solomon is barely on screen before he’s drugged, kidnapped, and thrown into slavery. There have been many movies made about slavery to be sure, but this film shoves the most vicious side of it right in your face. This is both the film’s strength, as well as it’s greatest weakness. Right off the bat, we endure Solomon as he’s brutally whipped. The problem is even though this is hard to watch, I barely know the character at this point, so it’s not as effective, and a lot of the film is just trying to go for these shock moments at the expense of plot, which is completely non-existent until the last fifteen minutes. The first act doesn’t work because of these forced shock scenes, and a lot of overacting.

We’ll get into some of the great performances soon enough, but I got to say, I wasn’t crazy about the actor who played Solomon, Chiwetel Ejiofor. He was solid for the most part, and I certainly sympathized with him, but he doesn’t carry this movie very well. It’s a fairly underwritten character, as the people around him are far more interesting. It’s not until Paul Giamatti comes into the picture when I really started to turn on this movie.

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Giamatti is in one scene, but boy is he an evil son of a bitch. It’s his job to sell the slaves, and they give him one line of dialogue that will make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. From this point forward, the acting got a lot better all around. Aside from Solomon, the other main slave we focus on is Patsey, played wonderfully by Lupita Nyong’o. She’s hell of a lot more compelling than Solomon. Paul Dano plays an obnoxious slave driver, and is really good at it. Sarah Paulson is also devilishly loathsome as the mistress to Fassbender’s character. Speaking of Fassbender, he is the clear stand out here, and an absolute lock for a Best Supporting Actor nomination. There are times you just want to jump into the screen and punch him in the face, he’s that damn effective, playing an absolutely repugnant slave owner. For as menacing as he is, there are times when he’s equally as pathetic, as Fassbender brings a real layered performance to this guy. Any time he’s on screen, I was both entertained and nervous.

While Fassbender and a lot of these actors were certainly highlights, I have to elude to a couple scenes that alone make this film worth seeing. I don’t want to spoil too much, but one involves a character getting hanged, while the other is another whipping scene, but they both accomplish the same thing. These scenes are painful to watch, and go on for what felt like hours. You are just begging for these sequences to end, but they are exceptionally powerful. For as hit or miss as the directing was, I give director Steve McQueen a hell of a lot of credit for those scenes.

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Aside from the protagonist, the other element that severely hurts this movie is that the plot just isn’t there. Yes, it’s about Solomon wanting to get free, but this is really only addressed in 2-3 scenes out of a two hour plus film. The film is constantly repeating itself, but not really moving the plot forward. The slaves work in the field, Fassbender is really menacing, and then someone gets punished. For the most part it’s effective, but it’s as if the filmmakers said, “Well, we’ve shown all the horrible stuff we can. Let’s quickly wrap this up.” The third act introduces a total throw away character just to use him as a plot device to quickly wrap up the main story, which gets resolved in ten minutes. I’m sorry, but that was a major problem for me.

This film reminded me a lot of last year’s Zero Dark Thirty. There are individual moments that are stunning, but a lot of messy direction and writing to sift through. I could forgive a lot of this stuff if I found Ejiofor’s performance more convincing, but he is far out-shined by the supporting cast. Despite all the problems, I’d feel irresponsible if I didn’t recommend this for some of those specific moments I mentioned earlier. One other note I have to mention, is there’s no bigger Hans Zimmer fan then me, but his score is a total miss here as he completely recycles similar music from Inception. Maybe he didn’t have a lot of time to score this, but whatever the case, it’s a rare failure for Mr. Zimmer.

Rating: 7 out of 10 (Good)

Daniel Cohen is the hard-boiled Film Editor for the Pop Break. Besides reviews, Daniel writes box office predictions, Gotham reviews and Oscar coverage. He can also be found on the Breakcast. If Daniel was sprayed by Scarecrow’s fear toxin, it would be watching Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen on a non-stop loop.