The white plantation house stands tall, the bayou glittering behind it. The cotton is high. And somewhere in the yard, between the house and the low-slung shacks that surround it, the master of the plantation is lashing his slave.
It's an image we've dealt with, or think we've dealt with, for a century and a half, obsessing over the contrast between genteel Southern history and the brutality of slavery, thinking over and over again we've moved past the original sin that founded our country until something else dredges up the old wounds. But that familiar scene of the white man punishing his black property, no matter how visceral and brutal, has never felt as real or as human as it does in 12 Years A Slave, which tells the story of American slavery by doggedly telling one story. There are several whipping scenes in the film and others of horrifying violence, but the one I'm talking about-- the single-take, gut-wrenchingly acted, astonishing scene-- is built up to with breathtaking precision. It would be hard to watch regardless, but the specific character actions and motivations that lead to it give the scene unbearable impact. Director Steve McQueen, whose previous two films Hunger and Shame have been tightly focused character studies, has made a stunning historical epic about a familiar, shameful subject and makes it new by making it personal.
And it's not all about Solomon Northup either, though as played by a commanding and heroic Chiwetel Ejiofor, Solomon is a remarkable guide into the world of the antebellum South. Lured from his Saratoga Springs home to Washington D.C. with the promise of work playing the violin, Solomon is drugged, kidnapped and sold to a slave trader, eventually cutting timber at one Louisiana plantation and then picking cotton at another. The promise of the limited time frame, and the fact that Northup was able to write a book about his experience, is all that might keep you going through the first hour, watching Northup go from defiant to resigned to his circumstances, and several fellow prisoners (including Pariah's Adepero Oduye and The Wire's Michael K. Williams) meeting even worse fates. Other brief appearances from familiar faces, like Paul Dano and Paul Giamatti, give necessary distance-- even remembering for a second that these are actors can keep despair from settling in.
But McQueen is not a director who allows for distance, and eventually turns his signature long takes directly at the audience, not reveling in the suffering that Solomon experiences, but refusing to let us turn away from it. Without sadism or sensationalism McQueen turns tiny details-- feet struggling to keep their hold in mud, glowing embers of burned paper, a paddleboat wheel-- into heart-stopping moments of sorrow. Forced to hide his intelligence and nearly all emotion, Solomon's pain is suffused into the film itself, which allows McQueen to explore the infinite tricky stories that surround him. There's the kinder plantation owner (Benedict Cumberbatch) who appreciates Solomon's smarts but is not brave enough to free him. There's Dano's overseer, brutal and repugnant but brimming with obvious self-loathing. And, most fascinatingly and perverse, there's McQueen's old collaborator Michael Fassbender, giving perhaps one of history's most complex villain performances.
It's not that we meet Fassbender's Epps as a decent man and watch him transform into a monster-- Solomon is warned from the start that Epps is a "slave-breaker," and we first see him lecturing his slaves from the Bible about the lashes they'll deserve if they misbehave. But Epps, and his ever-jealous wife (Sarah Paulson), are so specific in their monstrosity, so captivated by envy and insecurity and complete terror of their own slavesm that they almost earn pity. Epps has special affection for slave Patsey (incredible newcomer Lupita Nyong'o) but is consumed with envy when she goes to visit a neighboring plantation where the owner happens to be married to a former slave (Alfre Woodard); he's so afraid of his attraction to Patsey that he rapes and humiliates her, and Fassbender constantly reveals the coward behind the brutal whip-wielding man. Scenes between Ejiofor and Fassbender, in which Solomon must outsmart Epps without letting him know he's been outsmarted, are riveting and terrifying in their imbalance of power. Everyone knows that slavery put unwarranted power in the hands of rough and terrible men; that injustice has never felt as powerful, or as terrifying, as it does when Epps stares at Solomon with unblinking, unfeeling eyes.
With striking cinematography from Sean Bobbitt and Hans Zimmer's simple but intense score, 12 Years A Slave feels at moments like a partner to The Thin Red Line, another story about a well-documented, brutal period of history that dug deep inside its participants and found something beautiful and devastating. McQueen is not a lyricist like Terrence Malick, and is telling a much more straightforward and character-driven story, but he's similarly able to slice directly to the marrow of history, shaking the audience away from platitudes and historical distance and putting the constant terror of the not-so-distant past in front of us. It's a bracing, sometimes unbearable and emotionally wrenching film that left me shaking-- with fury, with sadness, with wonder at filmmaker in such complete command of a thorny story and the incredible performances that bring it to life. Solomon Northup's story is unlike that of most of the slaves forced to labor in America, but McQueen has made it the perfect lens through which to revisit an old wound that cannot, should not heal.
12 Years A Slave opens October 18. For more on the film you can watch Sean's video blog, or catch up with all of our Toronto Film Festival coverage here.