At the center of it all is Northup, the outsider locked into a nightmare. Ejiofor has given notable performances in the past (Dirty Pretty Things, Serenity, Talk to Me), but this is by far his most essential role to date. Stoic, watchful, compromising himself just enough to stay alive, he is the point of stillness and decency around which spin the madnesses of the film. One scene seems almost to literalize this proposition, as Northup, saved from a lynching but with the noose still tight around his neck, stands, choking, on tiptoe for hours as the life of the plantation goes on all around, no one daring to untie him.
The remainder of the cast is strong as well—in particular, Nyong’o as Patsey—with the unfortunate exception of Brad Pitt, who appears late in the film as a high-minded itinerant worker from Canada. It’s not that he is bad, exactly, it’s that he’s… Brad. While other well-recognized actors make appearances in the film (Paul Giamatti, for instance), Pitt is the only one whose persona overwhelms his role; it’s as if he has wandered in from another, more conventional movie. (It does not help that the character he is playing arrives, essentially, as a deus ex machina.) That said, Pitt was instrumental in producing the film, and if a somewhat-ill-fitting performance was the price to be paid, it was one well worth paying.
The cinematography by Sean Bobbitt (who worked with McQueen on his previous features) is stunning; and the score by Hans Zimmer represents his best work in years, an eerie, discomfiting soundscape that buzzes like angry locusts and drums like approaching thunder.
But from first frame to last, 12 Years a Slave is McQueen’s achievement, and it represents a huge leap forward for the director. His earlier films, Hunger and Shame, were beautiful but remote, aesthetic exercises in the mortifications of the flesh. 12 Years a Slave is no less carnal in its inquiries—it is, in its most literal sense, a film about bodies bought and sold—but its context and purposes are so much weightier that they tether McQueen’s gifts, enabling him to transcend “arty” and produce a work of genuine, unmistakable art. 12 Years a Slave is likely the most painful, clear-eyed feature ever made about American slavery. In that light, it almost seems faint praise to add that it will likely also prove to be the best film of the year.