Sunday, 15 December 2013
12 Years a Slave - Review By Greg Klymkiw - Slavery is Bad.
12 Years a Slave (2013) **1/2
Dir. Steve McQueen
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong'o, Sarah Paulson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti
Review By Greg Klymkiw
Steve McQueen continues to amaze me as a genuinely great director who makes movies I don't much care for. His best work, Hunger, still impresses in terms of being just the right balance between his skill and harrowing subject matter, but Shame, in spite of its clear display of McQueen's natural abilities still made me want to throw in the towel on the guy since it was so jack-hammeringly, thuddingly and relentlessly oppressive in its need to tell us that sex addiction is not good. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Shame is bereft of genuine passion, humour and basic entertainment value. It also had the horrifically simpering Carey Mulligan who is the most inexplicable go-to gal for leading roles since Catherine Spaak (who was once described by Pauline Kael as being so boring that when she doffed her clothes "even her breasts were boring").
Luckily, for us, Carey Mulligan is not in 12 Years a Slave. Curiously, she actually might have worked in the role of Michael Fassbender's frigid, bed-wench-hating wife, but ultimately McQueen cast Sarah Paulson who does an admirable job and ultimately seems a perfect match for the brutal slaveowner). And as for 12 Years a Slave, I will not for a second try to say that McQueen doesn't display some utterly dazzling directorial touches - quite a few, really. Alas, he still has the annoying habit of wielding a cudgel filled with deep earnestness.
Granted, this is a film about the true life story of free-man-turned-slave Solomon Northrup who was horrendously forced into 12 years of merciless servitude until gaining his freedom thanks to a kindly Canadian contractor doing work on the plantation, and as such, one expects the picture to seriously address its subject, but McQueen's unflagging Western Union telegraphing in every scene becomes tiresome and takes away from the drama so otherwise inherent in the picture.
When the drama appears to be working, McQueen errs by pushing the movie into overwrought, clumsy sentiment. (The most egregious moment occurs in the film's conclusion when Northrup is reunited with his family.) When the drama works best, it's when we can spend as much time as possible with the great actor Chiwetel Ejiofor as Northrup, who invests his character with such great SCREEN intensity, that one occasionally DOES get lost in the film in all the right ways. We get lost in Ejiofor playing a man who must always mask his emotions in order to stay alive - not, as he says, "to survive, but to live." In fact, the most powerful and poignant element of the film is the notion of doing everything possible in order to get back to a life once lived and to experience the joys of those he loves and misses. To actually be able to achieve this is probably one of the most difficult things for any actor to pull off and there's no trick-pony work going on here at all.
It's McQueen who feels like the trick pony - trying to mask his sledgehammer with style and occasionally succeeding, but more often, not effectively navigating the waters he's poured into his own receptacle. At times, we feel the tale proceeds by rote - part of the problem, perhaps in John Ridley's by-the-numbers screenplay and the other, in McQueen's insistence that every scene hammer home the overwhelming notion of how horrendous slavery is. You know, I think we get it, Steve. If only he could use his visual gifts to enhance the storytelling itself.
One of the great things McQueen does, is trust in his leading actor to create a number of moments wherein the camera rests solely on Ejiofor's face. More often than not, the screenplay and the manner in which McQueen chooses to render the action, is by setting up a key element on each end of the close-up, neither of which specifically telegraphs nor buttons done the overwhelming emotion that Ejiofor must convey. It's in these moments where we learn so much about the character, but also where he is emotionally and NARRATIVELY in the story and it's all achieved visually and beautifully, by both the actor AND director.
Often though, McQueen resorts to the old sledgehammer in the same way he did in Shame. His placement of the camera, the lighting and even the blocking of two paralleled sex scenes in 12 Years a Slave are so painfully obvious in their execution and the fact that they both occur in this manner. One involves a female slave, so starved for human contact that she mounts Northrup and he grudgingly complies with her need for some bone. The other involves Michael Fassbender forcing his manhood upon his favourite slave wench. He needs to slip her the root, but she is most certainly in another time and place as he does it - in cahoots, of course, to the look on Northrup's face in the similar scene.
Come on, Steve. Give us break. The sledgehammer here reminds me of that scene in Ingmar Bergman's The Serpent's Egg that compelled Pauline Kael to comment on a scene involving Glynn Turman beating his meat to try achieving an erection and she hilariously found a delicious way to crap on Bergman's obviousness by reminding us of the old "How bad was it?" jokes when she offered up the answer that things were so bad in the pre-war Weimar Republic that "not even a Black man could get it up."
What's too bad is that so much of the film attempts to avoid easy messaging and even easier sentiment, but when both rear their overblown heads, they have this horrible effect that makes us think too long and hard about what McQueen is trying to tell us. We're aware of his hand in the most obvious fashion. This is, of course, a far cry from someone like Scorsese, whose show-offy style is always there for the sake of the narrative and so seamless that we're dazzled, yes, but jettisoned into the stratosphere because we DON'T feel his hand until we really think about it (and usually long after the combination of visceral, emotional, visual and narrative excess, so gorgeously melded, have had their way with us and moved on to something else). McQueen seemed to have this so much more under control in Hunger that one feels he's been going out of his way in these two subsequent films to top himself rather than building incrementally on his strengths as a director.
For me, after two helpings of 12 Years a Slave, I'm far more interested in how and where to place it within the context of seminal American films about the subject of slavery. McQueen's film will possibly grow on me in subsequent viewings and in spite of my reservations, I'd still place it within the pantheon of films addressing slavery I've included four images below that I think do as good a job as any in placing 12 Years in some form of cinematic historical context.
David Wolper's production of Alex Haley's plagiarized book ROOTS in 1977, still remains a powerful groundbreaker in the treatment of slavery on-screen. The first two episodes in particular are a near masterpiece of narrative brilliance AND as social document. LeVar Burton as the young Kunta Kinte, smouldered with such force that I always wondered why his most well-known work after the legendary miniseries was as that blind guy with the weird thing over his eyes in Star Trek: TNG.
Tarantino, of course, delivered a similar revisionism to slavery in the extremely subversive Django Unchained as he brought to the Holocaust in Inglourious Basterds. And, of course, the movie not only brought social satire to the fore, but did so by making a movie that was strikingly cool.
Richard Fleischer's adaptation of Kyle Onstott's potboiler novel Mandingo is a bit more difficult to approach due to its myopic reputation as a "bad, exploitative" film, but frankly, in Fleischer's hands, I'd argue the issue of slavery might still be most powerfully felt and rendered with the greatest skill on both stylistic and narrative grounds. The ugly, filthy Falconhurst plantation had none of the antebellum charm we're used to seeing in so many movies, the dialogue is always thick with Southern gumbo, the violence as raw as one would expect, the racist attitudes as sickening as we're likely to see in any motion picture and, yes, Fleischer not being afraid to frame the world within a structure of melodrama.
The bottom line is that these three films take big chances and break genuine cinematic ground. All McQueen really achieves is an earnestness that ends up overshadowing the importance of the story he's trying to tell and the world he's trying to depict, Aside from a handful of genuinely great performances in addition to Ejiofor, include Lupita Nyong'o's heartbreaking performance as the sexually abused and favoured slave of Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch as the "kindly" plantation owner and Paul Dano as the hotheaded racist overseer.
Alas, many of the other key performances on the Whitey side of the fence are pure Snidely Whiplash - less so with Fassbender and ludicrously so with Paul Giamatti as a slave trader. On the side of the exploiters, one marvels at James Mason in Mandingo as he straight-facedly utters some of the most horrendously ignorant observations - not only about slaves, but women in general. Leonardo Di Caprio and Don johnson in Django Unchained seem far more acceptable over-the-top performances that are truly brave rather than Fassbender's one-note nastiness in 12 Years a Slave. It's one-note in that offensively Oscar-baiting fashion that seems far more exploitative in its Oscar-baiting intensity than anything on display in the Fleischer and Tarantino pictures.
One might also assume I pretty much detest McQueen's film. Far from it. It's an important work replete with several set pieces that reflect McQueen's natural gifts and a handful of great performances, but at the end of the day, the whole thing feels like Oscar-bait and this, ladies and gentlemen is especially reprehensible and not worthy of its original source material.
Like Shame, I'm forced to grudgingly acknowledge anything positive in McQueen's film at all.
"12 Years a Slave" is in wide release all over the world and ever-expanding its playmates.