12 Years a Slave ★★½

I like my better half's description of this as a movie that you can be "neither entirely for, nor entirely against" (heading off any hurt feelings, consider that the individual 'you,' directed my way—I'm really not out to pop anyone's balloon). McQueen's bent toward art-installation aestheticizing makes for an odd fit with the slow-build emotions of the piece, which already seems at script-level to be taking a very cool and clinical approach (the better to show that this is, like, really horrific shit, I guess?). I wish I believed a lot of it; most of the time I felt like I was watching performers playing dress-up in a rigorously rehearsed, scrupulously researched simulation, not unlike the Village Restoration museum I'd often visit as a child, if graphic beatings and the worst sort of physical-emotional degradation were part of the tour.

This leads me to wonder: Is being unflinchingly graphic (and I'd argue McQueen hedges himself, even in several of the celebrated long takes) enough to say that you've challenged your audience? Imagination is still required to portray the worst aspects of mankind—you can show the actions full detail, but the real artist also confronts you with the nooks and crannies of the psyche that would inflict such beatings, such unspeakable physical and mental torture. This has never been McQueen's strong suit; at least as far as his movies go, he's an outside-in kind of guy. And there's usually not much 'in' there.

This makes the few truly complicated moments of the picture stand out all the more. The Alfre Woodard scene is spectacular, in part because it seems that McQueen briefly handed the reins—Sin City guest-director style—to Lee Daniels. (A bracing, dangerous dose of melodrama in an otherwise stiffly solemn affair.) And the graveyard spiritual number is simple, direct and beautiful, though I'd argue less because of Ejiofor slowly joining in with the choir than by the mere presence of singer Topsy Chapman. She lends the kind of deep-felt, echo-through-the-ages elation and insight that Mahalia Jackson brought to Imitation of Life (1959) and Beah Richards gifted, with such heartrending openness, to Beloved (1998). (Both of these titles are also, to my mind, American films that better examine, implicitly and explicitly, the horrible legacy of slavery.)

A final word—made of semi-straw, I admit—that I truly dislike the "derelict appendage" of film criticism that seeks to identify and exalt for all time the one movie that gets a given subject "right." I've noticed an especial rush to do this with 12 Years a Slave, and I feel the urge to caution that its existence does not negate any similarly-themed movies that may have come before, or may indeed come after. (I wouldn't even accuse McQueen and his collaborators of chasing after such slam-the-Good-Book-shut superlatives.) The subject is not closed because someone addresses it—to your mind—as well as you've ever seen. There is always more to see.