Review: ’12 Years A Slave’ offers an emotionally raw and harrowing experience

When people complain that there are no great horror films coming out this October, they are wrong, because “12 Years A Slave” is flat-out terrifying, a beautifully-made, deeply-felt look at what it would feel like to wake up one morning in chains, your old identity simply wiped away, a life of bondage and servitude ahead, reinforced with brutal, nightmarish physical punishment.

Chewitel Ejiofor has been consistently great over the years, but this is one of those once-in-a-lifetime roles that an actor can’t ever fully prepare to play. The opportunity presents itself, and it’s either sink or swim. You have to throw yourself into it completely just to see what will happen, and Ejiofor shines here, finding every single grace note inherent to the story of Solomon Northup.

Director Steve McQueen has been revving up to this movie his entire career, and the work he does in this film is transcendent. To put it in a blunt sports metaphor, he doesn’t just hit the home run, he tore the cover off the ball and set it on fire. There is a depth of emotion here that is harrowing at times, and yet McQueen exhibits such remarkable control, such a clean, focused sense of what story he’s telling, that it becomes far more than the angry “CAN YOU BELIEVE THIS HAPPENED?” that it could have been.

It may sound like an insult of sorts to call this a horror film, but I think that’s the problem with the way most people think of genre. I don’t think any genre is, by its very nature, lesser than any other. I think genre is simply a way of defining some of the broad goals of different types of storytelling, and anyone who uses genre as a pejorative, as a way of running a film down, is missing the point. McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley have taken a very deliberate approach to this story, and I’m not sure how you could argue against it being a horror film. We’re not watching it dispassionately from the outside. Instead, the film is meant to make us feel that we are Solomon Northup, Ejiofor’s character, a free black man who makes a good living as a musician in Saratoga, New York. He’s married, with two kids, and McQueen paints a beautiful portrait of what that life is like for him and how even in a pre-Civil War United States, it was possible for a black man to achieve. That life he’s leading blinds Solomon to danger, though, and when he’s approached by two men about playing a series of circus shows while his family is away from Washington on a trip, he walks right into it. He is kidnapped, and when he wakes up in chains in a dungeon in a Washington, DC building, everything he has ever taken as normal disappears in an instance.

The film makes every awful, painful, abusive step in Solomon’s journey feel like it is happening to us. When he is beaten the first time, it’s not just an awful beating, it is a demonstration of just how radically everything in his world has shifted in an instant. Solomon’s never been struck like this. He’s never been left without any recourse. He’s never been bound, unable to defend himself. There is a brainwashing underway. They’re not just trying to break him physically so he understands that there is no way he’s going to escape this. They’re also trying to break him mentally so he never even considers escape. They set out to break his will. They want to eliminate hope from his emotional vocabulary, and I’ve got to think there is no more horrifying experience than that. To systematically have someone work to tear down everything that makes you who you are is, I would argue, the most horrifying thing I can imagine. And, no, it doesn’t matter who’s doing it, or what the ultimate purpose is. I no more support this sort of thing when used by “the good guys” for “the right reasons” than I would support it in the example we see in the film. This is a textbook lesson in how to break somebody, and what’s shocking is how quickly it starts to happen.

It’s important to the overall effectiveness of the film that Solomon is not a slave from birth. This is someone who had every expectation that he was safe, and because of one night, one brief moment where he lets his guard down, he is immersed in this unending waking hell. We experience it with Solomon, and as he begins to understand the desperate nature of his circumstances, we have that same dawning understanding. It is impeccable work by John Ridley, and the script, adapted from Solomon Northup’s book, has a rigid sense of perspective. This is Solomon’s journey, so what we see, we see from his point of view. We don’t get the release of cutting away to watch people try to figure out what happened to him. We aren’t constantly in touch with his family. Little by little, as the outside world fades for Solomon, it fades for us as well, until we are just as focused on the small details of daily survival, something that never becomes easier over the entire decade-plus of his imprisonment.

The film’s remarkable ensemble cast are both fellow slaves, sharing the experience that is slowly but surely breaking Solomon, as well as the people who keep the infrastructure of slavery rolling along. Adepero Oduye gives a crushing performance as Eliza, a woman who is kidnapped with her kids only to end up sold to a different master from the two of them. It shatters her, and Oduye gives haunting voice to this grief that Solomon feels no less, but that he cannot allow to drive him. Fans of “The Wire” will be pleased to see Michael Kenneth Williams show up, but I’m not sure pleasure would describe my reaction to see Paul Giamatti’s work in the film. Sure, he’s great as always, but Freeman is the owner of the slave market where the kidnapped blacks are sold, and it is a despicable, grotesque role.

You know you’re dealing with a completely broken moral landscape when you start categorizing characters as “good” or “bad” slave owners, but that’s what happens. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Ford, the first owner of Solomon, and for a time, Solomon starts to settle into this new version of his life. That might be the scariest thing in the film, the way he starts to adjust to this new normal, and as he struggles to maintain his true identity, that becomes the daily struggle instead of even allowing himself to dream of escape. When things come to a head with Tibeats (Paul Dano), one of the overseers on Ford’s plantation, it does so in a sequence that stretches one impulsive act of violence into a slow-motion nightmare that is more honestly terrifying than anything I’ve seen in a more traditional horror film this year.

Solomon ends up sold to a new owner for his own safety, which is a totally insane idea, and his situation goes from unspeakably bad to improbably worse. Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) is like a monster out of mythology, and from the moment Solmon arrives, it is obvious that Epps sees this as his kingdom, where there is no way he can do anything wrong because these people are his property. His wife (Sarah Paulson) can see how inappropriate his behavior is, but Epps is completely mad, even if he can’t tell. He also has a disturbing fixation on Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), his highest-producing field slave. The dynamic in Epps’s house is bizarre from day one, and it only gets worse as things progress, finally driving Solomon to start trying to figure out how he’s going to reclaim his correct place in the world. Nyong’o’s performance is brutally sad, and filled with small grace notes. I’ve never seen her before, but she commands the screen just as confidently as any of the more experienced cast members. There are several acts of violence directed against her that I found almost intolerable to watch, but that sort of sudden random terror is what defines her world, and McQueen makes sure we understand how hard it is for her, constantly walking on a straight razor, knowing that there is nothing she’s done to earn this and nothing she can do to avoid it.

McQueen has an exceptional eye for period detail, and he knows how to deploy violence in the film with an almost surgical level of skill. I think of him the same way I think of Cronenberg, directors so smart that their films almost feel like anthropological studies done by aliens, horrified and fascinated in equal measure by the drives and desires of human beings. I deeply admire both “Hunger” and “Shame,” but I don’t think either one of them connected with me the way this one does. There’s nothing sentimental about the film, but it gradually picks up a heft that, by the end of the film, I found devastating. McQueen never makes any part of Solomon’s journey easy, and he never lets you off the hook. Even small sequences with characters we don’t see much of, like Alfre Woodard as the former-slave-turned-plantation-wife, end up carrying a cumulative weight. Sean Bobbit’s photography is rich and beautiful, but it never flinches from the worst images McQueen shoots. The score by Hans Zimmer is just as heart-breaking as the script or the performances, and taken as a whole, this is a film that positively hums with purpose. There has never been a film that does a better job of capturing the experience of being a slave, and if that doesn’t qualify as the very definition of what scares us on a primal level, I don’t know what would.

“12 Years A Slave” opens October 18th in limited release.