12 Years a Slave movie poster
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12 Years a Slave
12 Years a Slave movie poster

12 Years a Slave Movie Review

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They call it unflinching. The term "essential cinema" has been tossed around. It is the movie to beat this awards season. But is it? Is it really? 12 Years a Slave, the true-life drama about a black freeman who is kidnapped in pre-Civil War 'Merica and sold into slavery, is a terrific movie... but it's not quite the masterpiece it's cracked up to  be.

There's no denying the power of the story: accomplished violinist Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is drugged, chained and hauled South where he eventually becomes the property of harsh plantation owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) and endures years of misery. It's an amazing story of survival and perseverance, and even better - it's true.

Director Steve McQueen (Shame, one of my favorite movies of 2011) takes a very matter-of-fact storytelling approach, often stripping scenes to their bare minimum to eliminate melodrama and let the circumstances speak for themselves. The film looks great and is brought to life by an often nuanced, occasionally bold score by Hans Zimmer.

Yet, as good as 12 Years a Slave is, it isn't the breathtaking masterpiece many claim it to be. Because of its stripped-down style, McQueen misses opportunities to take his film to the next level; especially toward the end, when his life finally reaches a turning point, the movie didn't resonate with me in the way I expected. The final few minutes could have been the most emotional of the year, but McQueen cuts out too much, opts to show too little.

The movie spans 12 years, but that sense of time doesn't translate to the audience. The ending comes abruptly and with shockingly little fanfare. The movie is brutal, but not as unflinching as some have said. These combined elements keep 12 Years a Slave from reaching its full potential.

On a more positive note, the acting is absolutely tremendous. Ejiofor is a lock for a Best Actor nomination and has a good chance at winning. His performance is simply incredible. Fassbender is terrific in the villain role, and Lupita Nyong'o turns in what could end up being the most overlooked performance of the year as the persecuted slave Patsey.

12 Years a Slave isn't quite the unflinching epic it was supposed to be, nor is it essential or (maybe) the film to beat, but that's okay. It is an extremely good movie and features some of the best performances you'll see all year.

Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.

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