One of the most challenging jobs for a critic is to separate an acclaimed film from the swirl of awards-season buzz that defines its merit in the minds of many. Our job is to focus on what matters (the film) instead of what doesn't (hype). Unfortunately, many writers do exactly the opposite, hitting social-media platforms like Twitter and Facebook after a screening with enough hyperbole to make Rolling Stone quote machine Peter Travers blush with embarrassment.
This kind of virtual gushing happened in September after Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival. The articles focused on the film's impossible-to-beat status as a Best Picture nominee instead of dealing with the film itself—what it's trying to say and why.
A film of pre-ordained importance because of its seemingly frank depiction of slavery, 12 Years a Slave is actually closer to a heightened fable than any profound example of period-piece realism. Through the eyes of Solomon Northrop (Chiwetel Ejiofor)—a family man and musician from Saratoga, N.Y., who's abducted and sold into slavery against his will in 1841—the world's atrocious horrors are depicted with a near dream-like sense of menace.
McQueen achieves such an effect through stylistic devices like overlapping sound design and disjointed editing schemes. These aesthetics fragment Solomon's perspective just enough to complicate any notion that what you're seeing is the whole truth, despite the harsh language and violence one might associate with a film dealing with such trying subject matter.
A staggering sequence involving competing pieces of music is a prime example of the film's blurred cinematic lines. Paul Dano's decrepit overseer sings a racist melody in the fields while the film flashes back to find Solomon performing a classical piece of music on the fiddle. Here, songs of hate and passion merge to form a simultaneously terrifying and entrancing sense of time passing slowly. For Solomon, there's no escape, just the clash of memories and experiences, however different they may be.
Like in his previous films Hunger and Shame, McQueen favors a slow, even languid, camera style that allows certain images in 12 Years a Slave to take on resolute meaning without much context; inherent weight lies in their juxtaposition with other disconnected moments, not some tenuous connection with plot or message.
Compositions often bleed into one another: a striking shot of Solomon and fellow slaves framed by a wall of sugar cane; blueberry juice running the contours of a plate; candlelight illuminating over an otherwise dark space. As Solomon is pushed to the limits of sanity, such images become a flickering memory bank that serves as his own historical record.
12 Years a Slave clearly believes that thematic heft outweighs notions of verisimilitude. Even though it's based on a true story (the real Solomon Northrop published a book by the same name in 1855), McQueen's adaptation seeks to indict the institution of slavery by focusing on it as a heightened nightmare of repetition.
Whippings, hangings, field work, cotton weighting—these events become cyclical and erosive in nature, devastating in how banal they feel to specific characters. In the second half of the film, McQueen personifies this motif through the psychological breakdown of a white plantation owner named Epps (Michael Fassbender), who's obsessed with his prized field hand Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o) despite his wife's (Sarah Paulson) beastly resentment.
It's here that 12 Years a Slave connects one man's personal (and all-encompassing) selfishness with a national and ideological trauma that still stings to this day. Solomon is not so much a hero, then, as a documentarian to how this destructive procedure imbeds itself in the fabric of everyday life. Like the cinema itself, his eyes don't capture reality but, rather, an unthinkable truth.