In lieu of a quote simply presented through text, I am linking a video, because simple letters do not give justice to the emotional weight and devastation of this scene.
There are three shots from films in 2013 that will forever be burnt into my mind, due to their sheer devastation. The first, is Ryan Gosling lying with dead eyes and a gradually spreading pool of blood around his head in The Place Beyond the Pines. The second is Solomon Northup, who was being hung by three men before they were caught, and he was left dangling in the air for a whole day, suffocating and toes barely scraping the ground, with all passers by ignoring out of feat. The third is Patsey’s bloodied, butchered back after being brutally beaten within an inch of her life by Master Epps.
12 Years a Slave is a film of indescribable brutality, pain and torture. Every frame is drenched in a stifling sense of fear, desperation, and excruciating pain, which transfers to the viewing experience. It feels like you are being strangled when Solomon is being hung, that if the scene continues, that shot is held onto for any longer, you will collapse. You feel every crack of the whip onto Patsey’s skin when she is whipped, bursting open, bloodied and raw. Every emotion, act of injustice or violence, is felt by the audience.
It is a film of great contradictions, showing characters that don’t ‘practice what they preach’ to an extreme degree. Master Epps reads the slaves, who he claims as his ‘property’, bible verses, but then says that the harm he inflicts on Patsey, Solomon, and other slaves is “not a sin”. Master Ford stops Solomon from being hanged, but doesn’t take him down from the tree, and later, he lets him sleep in the main house, but not on the floor. It focusses on background moments, what’s happening when people aren’t looking (or at least, you think they’re not), or are passing by an event. An agreement to send a letter that is written by candlelight is made in the middle of the night. Other slaves continue with their work, past the horror, out of fear, doing their daily jobs and living life normally while another is being tortured.
If you’re looking for a film where the mark is hit in absolutely every aspect to an overwhelming degree, the most perfect storm of technical achievement on film this year…all bets are off. 12 Years a Slave wins the prize, fair and square. It’s script is perfect, using language from the era in an understandable and realistic way; the cinematography balances the beauty of classic locations that one associates with tranquility and serenity with the excruciating horror that occurs, further inducing fear; and flawless, bold direction. The centrepiece though, is the performances. Every single actor is at the top of their game in intensely physical and demanding roles, characters who are, for the most part, present for only short portions of the film, but still leave a lasting impression. Each line, every gesture is delivered in the perfect fashion, whether that is fear, anger or superiority.
The three most remarkable though are those from Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, and Lupita Nyong’o.
Ejiofor plays a man who is smart, quiet, but outspoken, understanding that emotion must be bottled up, until it possible can’t be anymore, bursting out in moments of frustration and anger. He understands Solomon, his personality, and motivations inside out, and hopefully this will lead to more roles as equally amazing as this.
Fassbender plays an unrelenting madman, a buffoon psychopath who is dangerously fascinated with one of his slaves, but still (again contradicting himself), inflicts fierce brutality and harm onto her.
The stand out in the entire first-class ensemble though is Nyong’o, who plays the young Patsey with nuance, balancing youth and fragility with fierce courage. Patsey makes dolls out of left over sugar cane husks, but realises that in order to survive, she must obey Epps, but retaining her dignity is also important, which she does by fighting, even if it results in pain. It’s a knock-out performance that would be criminal to not give the Oscar too, and hopefully one that leads to a long and successful career.
Brutal and harrowing but immersive, 12 Years a Slave is a masterpiece, albeit nearly unwatchable, hence the split for #1 on my rankings for 2013. It’s incredible, but not a film for entertainment or rewatchability, which is where Before Midnight wins. It causes reflection on how films are counted as best, because this is definitely one to watch for its achievement, but it devastates so much that one has serious reservations about watching it again.
Believe the reviews, it is the real deal. It’s an unflinching portrayal of the sheer barbarity that humans are capable of. To quote The Guardian, it’s “not just a great film, but a necessary one”.
12 Years a Slave received a wide national release, starting January 31, after being the closing night film at the Brisbane International Film Festival.
MA (strong themes and violence), 134 mins.