It angers me when people complain about the state of film today. Yes, there’s an orgiastic onslaught of celluloid and digital excrement shoveled into multiplexes every year…but if 2013 proved anything, it’s that art finds a way to survive and quite often thrives in the manure laid across the silver screen. This past year saw both one of the most accessible art films (12 Years a Slave) and one of the most artistic blockbusters (Gravity) of the decade blossom in the verdant soil of cinema. I mean hell, Gravity proved that a money gouging gimmick (3D) utilized in so much of that dross that strangles viewers every year can actually be used in the correct artistic context to add…fancy that…new dimensions to film.
And survival and blossoming in the midst of a shit storm – thematically that’s what the year in film was about. Witness surviving: being kidnapped into slavery (12 Years a Slave), outer space calamities (Gravity), adolescence (Mud), young adulthood (Frances Ha), marriage (Before Midnight), the sins of the father (The Place Beyond the Pines), the lonely high seas (All is Lost), Somali pirates (Captain Phillips), and false persecution (The Hunt). Hmmm…they do say that all great stories are essentially the same story, don’t they?
Steve McQueen’s searing cinematic treatise on slavery will never be accused of holding back. Classically the film opens in medias res showing small moments in the life of a man enslaved that lead him to flashing back to an idyllic moment with his wife when he had been a free man. McQueen’s confident direction and John Ridley’s assured screenplay move cleanly back and forth in time to tell the harrowing story of Solomon Northup (an amazing Chiwetel Ejiofor), an accomplished violinist from Saratoga, NY with a loving wife and children who is lured to the nation’s capital on the promise of work only to get kidnapped into slavery. The horrors, violence and depravity slowly escalate during the film’s runtime, with McQueen transmitting the details through clever points-of-view and camera angles, focusing on the screams and faces of the victims until by the end of the film all blood and flesh are left pooling on the dusty ground of the plantation hellscape run with diabolical vigor by Master Epps (a blisteringly despicable Michael Fassbender, stretching his acting muscle yet again to its darkest reaches under McQueen’s insightful and uncompromising eye).
12 Years a Slave is simultaneously a harrowing one-man-survival-tale and a bitter pill of a history lesson that reminds us it wasn’t so long ago that an entire culture in the Southern United States believed with all their rotten hearts that it was their right to hold other human beings as property. Continue reading →