In 1841, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) lives as a proud, free black man in Saratoga, New York along with his wife Anne (Kelsey Scott), daughter Margaret (Quvenzhane Wallis), and son Alonzo (Cameron Zeigler). Very well educated and able to play the violin, Solomon is extremely happy with his life, but as his wife leaves for several weeks Solomon finds solace in using his violin skills in a circus of sorts and is recruited by Brown (Scoot McNairy) and Hamilton (Taran Killam). The two men drug Solomon and he wakes up chained to a floor and thrown into the world of slavery with no means of escaping or contacting his loved ones. "12 Years a Slave" chronicles Solomon's hell as he desperately tries to survive the woes of slavery and apparent hopelessness.
The difficulties of surviving as a slave are proven to be frantic right from the start of "12 Years a Slave." Thrown from abusive master to abusive master, small meal portions, tight living quarters, and if you're able to read and write you're beaten for it. You have no friends, are packed like sardines in a can whenever you're transported, and the struggle to survive nearly outweighs the urge to live. Solomon's story is absorbing because his time as a free man is spliced into the film whenever he seems to drift off into his own world while he's a slave. His family and time as a free man are his comfort thoughts when he's not able to handle the harsh world around him.
The historical drama is immediately uncomfortable and difficult to watch as it takes little time before Solomon gets his first beating and it's just the tip of the iceberg as far as excruciating sequences go. The cast is extraordinary as you see extremely familiar faces pop up here and there; Benedict Cumberbatch as a Baptist preacher and slave owner, Paul Giamatti as a man in charge of selling slaves and getting the best price for them, and Brad Pitt as a Canadian carpenter with an Amish beard. Paul Dano continues his streak of impeccable performances. Dano's portrayal of sleaziness and smarmy characters reaches new heights in "12 Years a Slave." He is extremely unsettling in the film.
The two standouts of the supporting cast are Lupita Nyong'o as Patsey and Michael Fassbender as Edwin Epps. Patsey picks the most cotton out on the field every day and Master Epps (Fassbender) takes a liking to her because of it. Nyong'o's suffering bleeds through in her performance in every gesture and facial expression. Patsey's journey is heartbreaking and you feel it deep within your soul. Her whip lashing later on in the film is powerful, agonizing, and nearly unbearable to watch without flinching. Fassbender has this demanding yet frightening presence on screen. Epps is a drunk with a short-temper and treats his slaves like property. He is physically and sexually abusive and just the devil reincarnated as far as slave owners go.
But of course the real gem of the film is Chiwetel Ejiofor. The English actor has so much talent and has been in several recognizable projects already, but the down side is nobody knows who he is. He will be a mainstay in the public eye after "12 Years a Slave." Ejiofor is an absolute beast in the film. If you weren't already sitting down, Ejiofor's performance would bring you to your knees because it's so devastating. The extended shots in the film, those ones that seem to last forever while everyone pretends not to see the disgusting event taking place right before them, will haunt you. The over the shoulder shots of kids playing in the background while someone is hanged. It's depressingly mesmerizing. Thinking on your toes has never meant more than during this film.
"12 Years a Slave" is a soul crushing experience. It's a film featuring no humanity and no kindness only damnation and desperation. You won't be the same after viewing it. It's as if a piece of you is left behind once it's over. "12 Years a Slave" strips you naked, verbally abuses you, puts you in restraints, and whips you bloody until you're so battered and beaten you think you're going to die. Then it ties a noose around your neck and hangs you out to dry. As you choke and gasp for air and begin to turn blue, the ropes loosen slowly. A small glimmer of hope emerges and you can breathe again. You will live to see another day, but your life will forever be changed because of it.
"12 Years a Slave" will leave you broken and it’s difficult to imagine a repeat viewing, but it's also the most respectable and melancholy experience you'll have this year. “12 Years a Slave” is an outstanding triumph in filmmaking since it’s so unbelievably captivating yet will leave you feeling so undeniably uncomfortable as it takes pride in ripping your mortality to shreds over the course of two hours.
'12 Years a Slave' opens today, October 25 in Houston.