Numb. Of all of the adjectives used often in the recent critical appraisal that has taken place concerning Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave ‘numb’ might be the one most wholly appropriate. As the credits roll at the end of McQueen’s two and a quarter hour-long odyssey, or 11 minutes for every year of unfair and illegal incarceration served by Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Solomon Northup, the viewer cannot help but feel overpowered and useless. While hope is the one feeling left standing at the end of the picture, one would be forgiven for feeling mighty hopeless as ‘Roll Jordan Roll’, the films recurring hymn of choice, plays for one final time.
The premise of the picture is summarised neatly in the film’s title. A redemption story in which the redemption has been forcibly imposed upon it’s target, a based on real-life figurehead of the abolition movement, 12 Years A Slave examines not only America’s dark past, but the manner itself in which said history has been explored on-screen.
In many ways 12 Years A Slave is the ideal companion piece to Hollywood’s most overt offspring, and current enfant du jour, Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity. As they are with the Cuaron picture, the viewer is taken on a uber-real, hyper-personal journey of ordeal. Both trade their blows in miraculous long takes, but while the Cuaron film is one achieved through the magic of the movies, with its impossible sights brought to life via complex computer algerythms, the equally impossible visuals of the McQueen film are all too real. As Northup struggles for breath, drowning in the sunlight (both literally and figuratively; Sean Bobbitt’s photography is typically beautiful) in a visceral and tortuous slow hanging, McQueen draws upon the precise lack of a cut in order to draw the viewer, nay the witness, in. The stimulation of real-time trumps spectacle, although this in itself is a form of spectacle, albeit a particularly macabre one. While Sandra B. suffocates in the vacuum of space, Northup is forcefully denied a lungful of oxygen on Earth, that most fundamental of Abraham Maslow’s physiological needs. And all the while children play.
While the starvation of oxygen is only temporary, echoing the physical participatory beats exalted by the viewer, the stripping of time is the greatest atrocity committed against Northup. The film’s most startling revelation comes in it’s closing moments, as the repercussions of the passage of time are made clear, to, yes, numbing effect. It’s the ultimate sucker punch, and lands right in the gut, leaving behind a bruise that lingers long after the final strains of ‘Roll Jordan Roll’ have played out. It affirms the relationship between the viewer and the film’s protagonist with startling clarity.
*The lone complaint one might choose to level at 12 Years A Slave would be in the general direction of Hans Zimmer, whose Score overwhelms to the point of smothering. One anticipates what might have become of a more subtle musician, or had McQueen had the confidence to let his visuals and the diegetically sung songs speak unaccompanied. They’re certainly powerful enough.