Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave tells the story of Solomon Northup, a talented violinist from Saratoga, N.Y., who is drugged, kidnapped and sold into slavery. Based on a true story, the film is an epic of endurance: two hours of Solomon snared in a setting as breathtaking for its beauty as it is for its callous violence.
Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is not well-tailored to servitude. He mistakes slavery for a rational system of exploitation, instead of the arbitrary apparatus of domination that it is. Some months into bondage, he carpenters the side of a church. By doing his job well, instead of humbly, he incurs the wrath of one of the white overseers. Soon he finds himself strung up.
As a director, McQueen has returned an essential quality to cinema that has been missing in recent years: duration. Seconds before his death, Solomon is rescued by another overseer. The lynch-crew flees. But then his savior strolls away as well. Solomon is left, dangling by a rope, his toes arduously stretched to the ground to keep from strangling. McQueen frames the shot as a nature morte of unparalleled horror and beauty. The seconds pass, excruciatingly. They furl into minutes. The camera never moves. Nor does Solomon. His gasps and chokes are all that distinguish the image from a photo.
Cinema is called the moving image for a reason. Even a static shot -- like that of a man hanging in place -- holds multitudes. While Solomon slowly expires, other plantation slaves stroll by. Children jest in the background. The mistress of the manor ambles out onto the porch and heads back inside. The photographic gaze reveals a universe so full of life and doings that it is indifferent to the sufferings of a single man.
The film's rhythmic editing, its long, insistent takes of inanimate objects, turn this indifference into a metaphysical value. McQueen is a director who combines all the visual poetry of Terrence Malick with the foreboding of Werner Herzog. After Solomon is saved, he is sold again. His new owner, played with uncommon relish by Michael Fassbender, is Edwin Epps, a notorious slave-breaker with a touch of madness. Mad too is the world. The swamplands surrounding the new plantation are so suffused with life, so aching in beauty, that we forget that they are complicit in such unbounded cruelty.
McQueen's previous film, Shame, about a sex addict in New York, depicted a man so burdened with libido that he could not help but cause injury to himself and those around him. Like him, the world in 12 Years a Slave is poised to bite. Rape is commonplace; murder a pleasure. Solomon is abandoned by another slave, just as he later strands others. He is whipped, unjustly, just as he later, unjustly, whips others. Justice falters before a universe as grand, as disordered, as pregnant with menace as a primordial swamp. When a pestilence of cotton-worm descends on Epp's plantation, the hand of the divine at last seems present. But then it passes, returning Epp's human chattel to their misery. Later, a Canadian Carpenter named Samuel Bass (Brad Pitt) tries to enlighten Epps about human freedom, but it is like lecturing on vegetarianism to a wolf.
A musician and a carpenter, Solomon struggles in vain against the chaos. Music is an ordering principle to time and Solomon is a planner. He builds a church, but it is broken apart. He plays the fiddle, but then bashes it to bits. For 12 years he seeks a pen and paper to send a letter north, but at every turn he fails. Mcqueen shows us how slavery robs its subjects not only of dignity, but of agency. It smashes things apart.
At the end of the film, Solomon and Samuel Bass put the finishing touches on a gazebo. It is the only structure erected in a film in which so much is knocked down. Bass, too, is a man seeking morality amidst the madness. Despite his fears, he sends a letter north that at last leads to Solomon's liberation. It seems a concession to divinity that he is finally freed.
McQueen, though, mans a precarious theodicy. Justice, he tells us, is action taken against an indifferent universe. The South African writer Nadine Gordimer once wrote that, "Men are not born brothers; they have to discover each other and it is this discovery that apartheid seeks to prevent." One might say the same of slavery. Difference and indifference are but a matter of one's gaze. McQueen holds our gaze firm. He keeps his takes long, because there is no time to wait.