People, Property, Propriety and Evil in 12 Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave 2

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

Holding the Audience Captive in Prisoners

Prisoners

Anyone who sat through Quebecois director Denis Villeneuve’s well-crafted but morally repugnant Oscar-nominated film, Incendies, knows he’s a man who loves to play with the audience and turn the screws to the point of torture.  While going more mainstream with the kidnap thriller, Prisoners, he still finds way to tighten the ropes and hold an audience captive.  Red herrings, recurring visual motifs, carefully placed clues and masterful editing have become the director’s calling cards, and he stacks his deck in Prisoners with an A-list cast and sets the brooding atmosphere with Roger Deakins’ flawless photography shaded in blues and greys meant to mirror the moral ambiguities of this sordid tale.

Though it runs over two and a half hours, Prisoners is relentlessly compelling in a cold, calculated procedural kind of way.  Much of the film plays like the pilot episode of the next great TV crime thriller as it sets up the case of two missing girls and toggles itself between the families affected and the lead detective bent on finding the children.  Unfortunately it’s that same sensibility that leads Aaron Guzikowski’s disappointingly rote and too-tidy script awry.  We never really get to know the characters deeply as they are all composed of stock genre elements and would be better fleshed out in a long serial television format. Continue reading