In theaters Friday, Oct. 18
3 1/2 stars (out of 4 stars)
So raw and distressing is this historical account of a true-life American slave, it's tempting to turn away from the screen. Or maybe just cover your eyes for a few minutes of respite. Try not to.
In 12 Years a Slave, Chiwetel Ejiofor -- who, up until now, was best known for playing Keira Knightley’s husband in Love Actually -- rivets as Solomon Northup, a New York violinist and family man in 1841. His fate changes forever after he's drugged, kidnapped and sold into slavery. In a blink, his freedom is cruelly stripped away, along with his name. All he has left to hold on to is his dignity and fleeting memories of a rich former life.
One look at the title tells you that Solomon's journey lasts for an agonizing dozen years. Director Steve McQueen (Shame) lays out Solomon’s 12-year journey episodically, starting with Paul Giamatti's unnervingly cold-hearted auctioneer selling him off. Stock belligerent Southerners come and go. By far the most engrossing and searing chapter focuses on his time with a sadistic plantation owner (Michael Fassbender). The scenes between master and servant chill to the core: Audiences won't soon forget the sneering look on Fassbender’s face when he tells Solomon in the dead of night that he's caught on to his plan for escape.
And yet, the drama is at its most unflinching when words aren't spoken: Such is the brutality of watching Solomon tip-toe the ground while hanging from a noose in extreme heat and hearing a whip repeatedly strike the back of a defiant female servant (Lupita Nyong'o, amazing). There's no relief from the despair until nearly two hours in, when a Canadian contractor (co-producer Brad Pitt, in a cameo) meets Solomon and hears of his plight. It soon becomes clear that the grim depths here are necessary to appreciate the rays of hope and morality.
Yes, this is your worthy Oscar front-runner. It's a film every bit as immersive as Gravity and harrowing as Captain Phillips. And unlike last year's overrated Lincoln, it doesn't feel like a ponderous and pretentious lecture on 19th century slavery. Instead, audiences are left to see the perils for themselves. Prepare for the soul to be shaken.