Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” is as harrowing as its subject demands. No mainstream movie since “Schindler’s List” has merged worthy sentiment and grueling sadism with such powerfully disturbing sweep.
A shattering central performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor (and an even more impressive turn by McQueen regular Michael Fassbender) produce a determinedly brutal visualization of Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir.
The book (adapted here by John Ridley) is a vivid staple of the American slave narrative that would inform works as stylistically diverse as “Roots” and “Django Unchained.”
But it’s safe to say that the conventions of cruelty -- the whippings, rapes and foiled escapes, to name a few -- have never been presented onscreen in such graphic detail.
A free man of genteel Northern circumstance, Solomon is kidnapped, sold and sent to a Southern plantation, where he barely survives a dozen years of backbreaking labor and flesh-splitting whippings.
Solomon’s first owner is a guilt-ridden man of relative compassion (Benedict Cumberbatch) who leaves the dirty work to a bullying overseer (Paul Dano).
The second owner is even worse, a bullwhipping, Scripture-quoting drunkard (Fassbender), whose nightly rapes of the young slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) enrage his jealous wife (Sarah Paulson) into outbursts of shocking cruelty.
Filmed on location in Louisiana by cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, “12 Years” is grimly realistic even at its most melodramatic. Puffs of bloody mist explode with each whiplash, and the wails of a mother separated from her children seem endless.
Only the late, brief appearance of a beatific Brad Pitt as an abolitionist savior breaks this nightmare’s spell. We’re grateful for the breather.
“12 Years a Slave,” from Fox Searchlight Pictures, is playing in select theaters. Rating: **** (Evans)
Recounting the complicated story of WikiLeaks, “The Fifth Estate” desperately wants to be taken seriously.
To underscore the moral questions raised by publishing unredacted versions of classified documents, the film sets up a subplot in which a U.S. government informant in Libya (Alexander Siddig) faces unspecified horrors when his name appears in the documents that Bradley Manning released.
But the movie also wants to be as groovy and of-the-moment as “The Social Network.” So director Bill Condon tricks up the screen with candy-colored computer code, party lights, video and dizzying cuts between world capitals.
In vain. Underneath, it’s formula, constructed (again like “The Social Network”) in the form of a bad bromance.
We watch the slippery operator Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) suavely woo the talented geek Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Bruehl), who gazes with wide, adoring eyes as the mastermind secures secret information and grabs publicity. Then we see the adoration crumble.
The movie holds Assange at a distance and keeps us close to the awkward but honest Domscheit-Berg -- which is hardly surprising, since it’s based on Domscheit-Berg’s book.
How serious is it? Though the issues are real, Condon’s flashy technique flatters the audience without informing us. All that neon-hued code crawling up and down the screen has no more meaning, really, than a disco ball. Thinking it looks way cool does not make it way smart.
“The Fifth Estate,” from DreamWorks, opens Friday across the U.S. Rating: ** (Seligman)
In the late 1960s and early ’70s, a young Robert Redford proved he could hold his own, on his own, against nature and the screen with “Downhill Racer” and “Jeremiah Johnson.” Four decades later he’s still proving it with the thrilling “All Is Lost.”
Director J.C. Chandor’s impeccably crafted (and near wordless) tale of a yachtsman adrift at sea is, in its way, an action thriller parched to its essence.
In a brief prologue, Redford’s sun-baked character (identified in the credits as Our Man) floats in an inflatable raft on the Indian Ocean, writing a brief message-in-a-bottle farewell (and cryptic apology) to his survivors.
So ends any backstory and, for the most part, dialogue.
The film jumps back eight days, when Our Man, asleep and alone on the yacht, is awakened by a drifting shipping container that pierces the hull.
“All Is Lost” finds great fascination in the workaday deliberations of a sailor with more ingenuity than know-how. He manages to seal the hole, but the GPS and communications systems are kaput.
The inevitable storms are presented with terrific ferociousness -- we’re inside the hull with a tumbling Redford as the boat capsizes and rights itself in the film’s best set piece.
Chandor (“Margin Call” ), directing from his own screenplay and aided immensely by Pete Beaudreau’s editing, gives this one-man show astounding pace.
Redford moves through his survival tasks without panic or fuss, at one point stopping to shave for no reason besides maintaining order and his own sanity.
“All Is Lost” toys with our hopes like a fisherman with a catch, and the similarities with Alfonso Cuaron’s tense “Gravity” are striking: a tiny figure alone in the expanse, victimized less by nature than our pollution of it, and the possibility of a late-coming spiritual reprieve presented with just enough wiggle room to dodge proselytizing.
But a dodge it is, and “All Is Lost” is better at plunges.
“All Is Lost,” from Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions, is playing in New York and Los Angeles. Rating: **** (Evans)
What the Stars Mean: ***** Fantastic **** Excellent *** Good ** So-So * Poor (No stars) Avoid
(Greg Evans and Craig Seligman are critics for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are their own.)
Muse highlights include Jason Harper on cars and Patrick Cole on philanthropy.