12 Years a Slave Movie Review: Brad Pitt’s Film Is a “Worthy Oscar Front-Runner”

12 Years a Slave
Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave Fox Searchlight

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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