Brutal yet elegant, 12 Years a Slave is a beautifully rendered punch to the gut about the most shameful chapter in American history. It's based on the 1853 memoir of Solomon Northup, an educated freeman from Saratoga, N.Y., who endured a nightmare of involuntary servitude after being kidnapped. This is no Tarantino revenge fantasy in which the oppressed ultimately prevails over his oppressors. The film is notably authentic, down to its unadorned rural settings and period vernacular, in which words like "luxuriate" and "countenance" pepper everyday conversations.
With the exception of a conversation between Northrup and a Canadian abolitionist about the morality of slavery, nothing rings false here. The refusal to sentimentalize the story's emotions or to manipulate its solemn themes gives 12 Years a Slave a graceful dignity, personified in Chiwetel Ejiofor's performance as a man of constant sorrow. His moist, watery eyes communicate the despair of a human who has inexplicably lost his freedom but hopes to regain it. This painful yearning dominates the film without overwhelming it. Once you get inside those eyes, it's hard to feel anything else.
Other performances are equally effective. As Northrup's second master, Edwin Epps, Michael Fassbender is a revelation. He is at once monstrous and pathetic, a petty tyrant with a sadistic need to own and abuse human chattel. It's the best thing Fassbender has done so far in a promising career. As Patsey, the waifish female slave who unwittingly triggers Epps' perverse lust and uncontrollable anger, newcomer Lupita Nyong'o exhibits the strength and the frailty of a woman burdened by the horrors of life. A scene in which Patsey begs Northrup to end her misery is heartbreaking. And Alfre Woodard's cameo as a well-dressed, tea-sipping house slave who has learned to work the system is unforgettable, despite her few minutes of screen time.
In his earlier films, Hunger and Shame, British director Steve McQueen explored the psychology of control with mixed success. But 12 Years a Slave is the work of a more confident filmmaker. His static tableaux are now painterly and evocative; and his extended scenes serve a purpose beyond technique.
In one scene, Northrup hangs from a tree in the plantation yard, his neck in a noose and his feet barely touching the muddy ground. He performs a grotesque dance as he struggles to keep upright. Other slaves enter the yard to perform daily tasks, and children begin to play nearby as Northrup carefully maneuvers to stay alive, one slip away from certain death. It is horrible to witness, yet you can't look away from his determination to survive. In this moment, 12 Years a Slave becomes a movie for the ages.