Hammering Out...12 Years a Slave

Hammering Out...12 Years a Slave

Hammering Out... is a series of movie reviews featuring a lively he said/she said discussion between John and Julie.  This week: 12 Years a Slave.

JOHN: Coming out of film festivals like Toronto, the response to 12 Years has been rapturous.  I was eagerly anticipating this one.  I wanted it to wreck me.  I wanted to stay in my seat for the whole end credits, stunned into weeping silence.  And, early praise suggested that would be the case.  But expectations can be unfair, and, for anyone coming to 12 Years at this point, those expectations are going to be a major hurdle for the movie to clear in its bid toward Best Picture.  I should stop getting ahead of myself though.  How's the movie?  In a word: fantastic.  Does it work?  Oh yes.  This is only director Steve McQueen's third film, and he is quickly establishing himself as one of the more important artistic voices working today.  12 Years is tough stuff, and some of the sequences are truly haunting - in fact, I'd argue the movie works best as a series of powerful vignettes spread about 15 minutes apart.  I'll get into more detail in a bit, but what'd you think?  Did we just see this year's Best Picture winner?

JULIE: After hearing how people at the Toronto International Film Festival sat in their seats in shock after the film ended, thus drawing comparisons to Schindler's List, I expected that I'd be left unable to speak for a half-hour after leaving the theater. Well, that didn't happen. I had full use of my voice after watching the end of 12 Years a Slave. Was it a good movie? Undeniably. Was it beyond amazing? I don't think so.

There were amazing moments. The final scene is a crusher. There's a moment in the middle of the movie where McQueen holds on a horrific shot for so long and with sound effects so grotesque it will leave you squirming in your seat. Most of the acting is phenomenal. Chiwetel Ejiofor (who should really be a bigger star by this point), Michael Fassbender, and newbie Lupita Nyong'o are standouts.

But there are some buts. My biggest but is Brad Pitt, who produced the movie and also pops up toward the end in a pivotal, self-serving role. His presence dragged me right out of the narrative and the character he played left me groaning. I also thought the dialogue was sometimes distractingly stilted, especially when delivered by some of the less talented actors. And (yes, I know this is a true story so facts and all that), but I thought the end was a little abrupt and conflict-free. All tension just drained out of the movie right before the final scene, rendering it somewhat less powerful than it could've been.

You asked me if this will be the Best Picture winner. I don't think it will be. Academy voters will not be as enamored with this film as critics have been.

Film 12 Years A Slave

JOHN: You mention that one horrific shot - I'm guessing you're talking about the sustained, minutes-long shot of the near-hanging where Ejiofor's Solomon Northrup, or "Platt" as his slave owners have taken to calling him, has to keep tiptoeing to survive while everyone else just ignores and works around him.  That scene is so loaded with detail, commentary, horror, and, yes, poetry.  It's representative of the entire movie.  McQueen does not shy away from any of the gruesome aspects of slavery.  I've seen stories of this ilk before (Roots, Amistad and The Color Purple spring to mind) - in fact, just earlier this year, The Butler featured similar scenes, and last year's Best Screenplay winner, Django Unchained, mined similar subject matter to more crowd-pleasing effect.  But, in certain moments, like the one described above, McQueen shows me something I've never seen and it really made an impact.  Some of the scenes will be burned into my memory forever - they're that hard to shake.

Your comment on the performances is spot-on.  The three actors you mention above are outstanding.  It's great to see Ejiofor get the acting showcase he so clearly deserves.  His character goes on such a wrenching journey, and he comes out the other end a changed man.  He's heartbreaking in the role, as is Nyong'o as fellow slave, Patsy.  The scene where her character gets whipped is devastating.   Fassbender is always good, but this is his third movie with McQueen and the two really do seem to bring out the best in each other.  You missed Shame last year, but it's definitely worth seeing at some point.  As for Pitt?  He's saddled with an underwritten savior role, which was never going to work, but his star power does him no favors.  He does take you out of the movie in a way the other big stars in minor roles (Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch) never did.

And, is it wrong for me to admit that as good as this movie was, and as important it is for people to see, I kind of just wanted to watch Django again?  If anything, it would at least restore some sense of justice to the atrocities we've just seen.  Heck, I think I may even prefer Fruitvale Station to this.  Fruitvale strikes me as more timely and relevant to today's audiences because it examines a type of racism that still exists, even after the events in 12 Years have long passed.

JULIE: I don't want to sound like I'm pooping all over this movie because, really it's very good. And it's a story that deserves to be told and told well. What Solomon Northrup had to endure is simply horrific on so many levels and in so many different ways. But, like I think you were getting at with your Django Unchained comment, this movie was in some ways unsatisfying.

There's no catharsis. There's a lack of tension. I don't really fear for Nothrup's life throughout the film. He keeps breaking the rules and getting out of scrapes, though not necessarily unscathed. I'm going to compare this movie to Argo for a second, so bear with me. Both Argo and 12 Years a Slave were based on true stories, but Argo managed to mine some tension from the events, even while staying close to the truth. I wish that someone -- Michael Fassbender, Taran Killam, Paul Dano, someone -- had been taken to task for what they'd done. I really wish there had been a scene between the final scene and the penultimate scene. I know that would probably go against what actually happened, but it's a movie and I want to be manipulated, damn it.

Which is why I think that the more audience-friendly Gravity will take the Best Picture prize this year. Assuming no other movies come out between now and December 31.


JOHN: Well, my vote still goes to Gravity.  12 Years is very strong though, and well worth seeking out.  Between this, Rush, Gravity, and Captain Phillips, it's a very good time to be a moviegoer.  My rating: **** out of 5 stars.

JULIE: And though I don't think this film will win best picture, I hope the Academy recognizes several of its actors come Oscar time. Since I don't usually rate movies and I'm watching To Wong Foo: Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar right now, I will give 12 Years a Slave three snaps out of four in a Z-formation.

JOHN: I'm going to pretend you didn't just say that.

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