Director Steve McQueen started his career as a still photographer, and it shows. His films to date – 12 Years a Slave, Shame, and Hunger – are obsessed with visual texture and lighting. Everything is exquisitely laid out within a frame, and images are manipulated for their utmost aesthetic appeal. Rumpled bedsheets are a recurring motif of his. This visual sumptuousness, perhaps fortunately, perhaps unfortunately, is largely conducive only to loosely-told stories of human frailty and suffering; McQueen is not the type of filmmaker who is ever going to make a movie based on plot. He is going to tell a story of emotion. Part slide show, part opera, his films construct a narrative through small moments of notable pain.
As such, McQueen’s movies have, to date, all been slow-moving litanies of human suffering. He’ll film anything that allows his painterly lens to focus tightly on the face of someone in rapturous torment. I appreciate the aesthetic integrity and obvious amount of thought that McQueen puts into his work, but, well, at the end of the day, they’re no fun. Over the course of three films, we have not had one moment of quiet levity, not one moment of human warmth, not one moment of smirking self-recognition. McQueen’s only M.O. is to make us sweat, to make us ashamed. He is constantly in full-tilt dour mode.
So I really admire 12 Years a Slave, perhaps McQueen’s best film to date. The visual verisimilitude, the suffering of slavery, and the real horrors of this grand cultural injustice are all on full display. Everything you have seen in any other movie about slavery is present here, but ratcheted to 11, and presented with an artistic loveliness usually only reserved for Terrence Malick movies. Many people have felt wrenched and appalled by the horrors in this movie, but more power comes from the fact that it’s a true story. Solomon Northup (the excellent Chiwetel Ejiofor) was a real-life free-born black man who, in 1841, was kidnapped in the North and sold as a slave in the South, where he lived for 12 years before being rescued by a heroic Canadian (the film’s producer, Brad Pitt; Self-aggrandize much?).
I also feel like 12 Years a Slave was keeping me at a deliberate emotional distance. The focused aesthetic and deliberate photography felt like a barrier between the audience and any sort of true empathy or emotional connection. The historical facts and costumes may have been meticulously accurate, but actual human behavior, actual moments of relatable experience, actual conversations all were in short supply. This is one of the few instances where I would have welcomed a running narration, some sense of perspective on all of this besides “look how horrible.”
What’s more, the actual chronology of events is a little askew. I know he was a slave for 12 years thanks to the title, but he also spent his years on different plantations with different white masters (first the benevolent Benedict Cumberbatch, followed by the tyrannical horndog Michael Fassbender), and we never got a sense of how long he spent in either place. What kind of relationships do slaves form with one another and with their masters over the course of time? Since there’s no chronology, the deliberate litany of suffering only becomes more pronounced, and a little more alienating.
The acting in 12 Years a Slave is superb pretty much across the board. The fear, hurt, and desperation is clear on everyone’s faces, and the white masters come across as genuinely monstrous; Fassbender is being rightly lauded for his performance, but I also greatly admire Paul Dano, who is slowly becoming a compelling mixture of James Spader and Crispin Glover. Dano is an actor I will continue to watch. Despite this, I don’t think Ejiofor will win his Oscar – that category belongs to Matthew McConaughey. Fassbender, however, does have a shot at Supporting Actor, provided he can beat Jared Leto.
I think 12 Years a Slave would almost assuredly be the Best Picture winner, were the power of Gravity not so strong. Here’s my official prediction (for what it’s worth): Best Picture to Gravity, Best Director to 12 Years a Slave.
Odds to win: 2:1