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At first, the story has the quality of a lucid nightmare: Northup wakes groggy and chained after a poisoned night out. As the movie goes on, though, this nightmare becomes Northup's life. McQueen doesn't spare any horrors, yet the movie doesn't linger on them, either. Some of the most discomforting shots in the film aren't of whip-mangled backs or dead bodies, but McQueen's trademark fixed takes emphasize the pure hell of slavery: a long shot of Northup in a noose, just barely touching the ground, feet slipping in mud, as he tries to keep it from tightening around his neck, as other slaves go about their business in the background, may leave you somewhere between shifting uncomfortable and gasping for air. As the movie jumps forward in time, McQueen smooths it over with evocative sound design, cranking up the horrible scrape of coal-shoveling on a slave-transport ship, and overlapping the claps of an enforced slave song with the relentless chopping of wood.
In its quiet way, the movie is relentless as slaves and owners shuffle in and out of Northup's life. Benedict Cumberbatch plays his first owner, a decent man "considering the circumstances," as Northup puts it to another, understandably less forgiving slave. Indeed, this owner doesn't seem driven by cruelty, but his tacit approval of slavery nonetheless leads, inevitably, to greater evil: another owner, played by Michael Fassbender as another man (after his showcase in McQueen's Shame) consumed by sexual desire, this time for Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o), much to the consternation of his wife (Sarah Paulson). At times, including but not limited to these glimpses of marriage psychodrama, the dialogue of 12 Years a Slave sounds like an overheated play. But the movie doesn't tip into melodrama, in part because Solomon must keep quiet; he's often a passive character, by design and by necessity. In this way, the movie goes beyond the observation that, hey, slavery was a pretty horrible practice, and gets at how absolutely unwinnable it was: how a smart, compassionate, and legally correct man is left, for a large chunk of his life, more or less paralyzed just to survive.
12 Years a Slave has been described in some quarters as a corrective to the revenge fantasy of Tarantino's Django Unchained, in one of those instant-backlash moves that renders pretty much every movie of the past 10 years one that no one likes anymore. But the harsh realities of Slave actually complement Tarantino's film perfectly. Django isn't my favorite Tarantino, but damned if I didn't want to watch it again after this one, desperate for just a taste of cathartic escape.