Sunday, December 29, 2013

12 Years a Slave

The shot I found most astonishing in 12 Years a Slave is a long take that takes place somewhere near the last third of the film. The slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o) has disobeyed the master of the plantation Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). She is tied to a post and is to be beaten. Epps decides to make the story's protagonist Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) to be the one to lash her bare back with the whip. Solomon whips her a few times and Patsey is screaming and crying. At a point the camera will rest on their faces before pulling back to show the surroundings of the scene. Solomon is distraught and eventually he can't do it any more so Epps steps in and finishes the job. With each rapid lash of the whip we see skin come flying off Patsey and red lines of blood and flared scars take shape. Many of the supporting characters of the film are watching as Epps is screaming in a bloody rage. The camera never cuts and Hans Zimmer's subtle, but effectively haunting score plays through the entire moment. The reaction I felt was along the lines of, 'How can this be a movie? That felt so real. The skin flew off her back and there was literally no pause in the moment....'.

The film is full of other long takes similar to director Steve McQueen's previous films- Hunger and Shame. He then cleverly chooses when to cut and that is well after the pain of the moment we are witnessing has not only just settled in, but has become unbearable to watch (the scene where Solomon hangs being a perfect example). McQueen, a former artist, directs like a poet. His films wash over you and certainly feel timeless no matter the era of events. He loves to focus on discomfort and men who are trapped in solitude, which seems to be a big theme of films this year other then disrupting the American dream; that theme being of people in isolation (see Gravity, All Is Lost, Captain Phillips, etc.). The story of 12 Years a Slave follows Solomon from person to person as we the audience discover alongside the formerly free man what this "new" world entails.  The emotional performance of Ejiofor holds everything together despite the constant changing of scenery. Solomon is a character that is forced to rarely speak and mostly feel, so Ejiofor uses his eyes and mannerisms to make us understand Solomon's despair and misery from excruciating moment to moment. Other mentions to cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, screenwriter John Ridley, composer Hans Zimmer, and performers Fassbender and Nyong'o are deserved who just like Ejiofor, it'd be hard to imagine the film without their participation and talents.

It has been well documented that the films that end on an unsure and even sad note are sometimes the more effective. For a story to remind us that not everything is right in the world seems more poignant than everything being tied up neatly in a bow. Solomon does make it home to his family and that final scene is incredibly powerful and certainly one of the greatest scenes in a film that I've ever witnessed, period. He is happy, but he still went through such apalling hell that even though the character may seem content, we the audience still have to live, like Solomon, with the atrocity of nature we just witnessed. Storytelling at its best.

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