There's a transcendent scene in 12 Years a Slave that corroborates the emotional honesty director Steve McQueen is capable of articulating when he eases up on his fine-art pretenses. Transcendent because it's the one moment in the film where McQueen risks spiritual inquiry, truly opening a window into the soul of his main character, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), an African-American free man who, in 1841, was kidnapped from his home in New York and sold into slavery in Georgia. With a simple, reverent look up and at Solomon, renamed Platt by his captors, McQueen movingly conveys the moment when Solomon resigns himself to the cruel fate that's been handed to him by joining a chorus of slaves in the singing of a spiritual and, provocatively, appearing freed in his understanding of his enslavement.
But that flash of emotional intensity is scarce in 12 Years a Slave, because McQueen, as is his wont, is largely content to craft images and sounds that strongly convey atmosphere and evoke great horrors, but are less visualizations of human feeling than artistic posturing. Take the film's opening shot, an artfully framed overhead of a plate containing a drab piece of meat and bread and a few blackberries whose juices the educated Solomon, who's warned to feign illiteracy for the sake of his survival, will use to craft a letter to potential saviors back in New York. McQueen only implies Solomon's realization of how he can repurpose the blackberry juice as ink, transfixing us instead with the beauty with which the juice circles around the plate as Solomon tilts it from side to side. This manner of giving primacy to the fastidiously composed image over human emotion is repeated when Solomon, after his intentions have come to light, burns the letter he's written, the embers of the flame suggesting a vast universe's dying stars. It's an impossibly gorgeous image, poetic in its implications, though it isn't preferable to the one that was meticulously left off screen: the dissolving of hope from Solomon's face.
Like Hunger and Shame before it, 12 Years a Slave is a chronicle of the body as a prison. In Hunger, his debut feature, McQueen rendered the brutal captivity of Irish Republican Army martyr Bobby Sands as an ostentatious museum exhibit. His follow-up, Shame, was a heroically performed peep show as art installation, and one that confirmed McQueen's fixation on bodily experience and almost pathological aversion to psychological inquest. In the equally cagey 12 Years a Slave, Solomon remains a mystery to those around him, as knowledge of his previous status could lead to his execution, but like the tortured souls Michael Fassbender played in McQueen's earlier films, he also remains a cipher to audiences.
Solomon plays the violin, yet we're not allowed to understand what drew him to the instrument. If he seeks solace in music, you wouldn't know it, even in a scene depicting his sale to William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) wherein Solomon plays his violin in order to soothe the nerves of a slave trader, Theophilus Freeman (Paul Giamatti), and a slave, Eliza (Adepero Oduye), who's cruelly separated from her children. McQueen, an unmistakably unsentimental aesthete, even denies us a rich sense of Solomon's love for his wife and the life that he built in the North with her and their two young children. McQueen indulges lightly in flashbacks throughout, but the juxtapositions he creates between the horrors of Solomon's present and the freedom of his past feel emotionally disingenuous. He abstracts Solomon's body as a female slave reaches for him sexually with a hunger that stems as much from lust as it does from loneliness, then cuts to a scene of Solomon and his wife up North going about their everyday lives. This may remind us of what Solomon lost, but there's no feeling to the flashback because McQueen can't express that it comes from Solomon's remembrance beyond strictly formal terms.
To be fair, McQueen's impersonal approach to his subject matter isn't solely to blame for the failure of 12 Years a Slave, a safely anecdotal mosaic closer in spirit to Edward P. Jones's The Known World than to Toni Morrison's radically constructed Beloved. John Ridley's adaptation of Northup's autobiography cheapens Solomon's experience by presenting it as an educational string of episodic horrors. The film, which really only hints at the length of Solomon's ordeal in the old-age makeup a customarily nuanced Ejiofor dons in the last scene, moves from one stately, platitude-rich set piece to the next, featuring characters who enter and exit their scenes after having unimaginatively illuminated a different facet of the slave narrative. There's never a sense of how these people, by and large distractingly (though not unimpressively) played by a who's who of actors, live their private lives in between the very hectoring scenes that spotlight their public role in the history of slavery, and the effect is off-puttingly manufactured.
Walter Chaw persuasively argues to the moral compromises that were made in bringing this story to the screen. Not having read Northup's autobiography, I can only attest to how audiences, through Solomon's interactions with different white men, are dully schooled on the sliding scale of racism. The extent of William Ford's characterization is that of a gentleman who comes to understand Solomon as one too, but if he doesn't free his slave it's because his humanitarianism is easily understood as being subservient to his thirst for property. Solomon's subsequent master, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), sees his racist psychopathy staged as a sideshow attraction; as the filmmakers are unconcerned with the roots of the man's many contradictions and conflictions, he registers only as a fumbling, drunken archetype. It's almost a given that he cheats on his wife, Mary Epps (Sarah Paulson), with one of his slaves, Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o), and almost unbelievable that, when Solomon is sent by his master to a neighboring plantation, his meeting with Mistress Harriet Shaw (Alfre Woodard) is only an excuse for us to learn how female slaves spared themselves a lifetime of horrors by marrying their masters.
Long before Samuel Bass (Brad Pitt), a Canadian carpenter and abolitionist, arrives on the scene, just in time to remind us, virtuously though not fallaciously, that the freedom of blacks from slavery wouldn't have been possible without great risk on the part of whites, 12 Years a Slave has announced itself as a compromised vision. The film's immaculate score, by Hans Zimmer, and sound design, so thick with thunder, wind, the chirping of crickets, hammers beating nails into wood, whips tearing black bodies to shreds, work in tandem to strongly convey the bucolic, sinister atmosphere of the antebellum South. And yet, Solomon almost appears deaf to the world. This is because the film practically treats him as passive observer to a litany of horrors that exist primarily for our own learning. And because McQueen, unlike Steven Spielberg, Jonathan Demme, hell, even Quentin Tarantino, lacks the passion, with one transcendent exception, to truly connect his affectations to the spirit of human struggle.