Movie Reviews - 2013 postsTuesday November 26, 2013
Movie Review: The Internship (2013)
Here’s a conversation between Patricia and I during the last five minutes of “The Internship,” starring Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson:
Me: Why is everyone else cheering? They just lost. They won’t get jobs now.
Patricia: And what’s the stripper doing there?
That pretty much sums up the movie. The few choice jobs in the digital age are gone ... and what’s the stripper doing there?
Has there been a worse year for comedies? Hollywood keeps trying to make us laugh from situations that cause massive social anxiety: identity theft, college admission, Burt Wonderstone. In “The Internship,” it’s obsolescence in the digital age. Wucka wucka.
I get it. Our heroes dream and persevere. They overcome and work as a team and win. But the anxiety is too real while the victory too fake. The filmmakers (director Shawn Levy; screenwriters Jared Stern and Vince Vaughn) have taken the American nightmare, shoved it through the Hollywood dream factory, and this is what came out the other end.
Selling watches in 2012
Billy McMahon (Vaughn) and Nick Campbell (Wilson) are mid-40s watch salesmen who don’t know what time it is. They don’t even know their company has folded. It takes a former customer to tell them that.
Immediate thought. Sales? That’s a transferable skill. They should do well. Hell, if they can sell watches in 2012, they can sell anything.
Except for the movie to work, they can’t get jobs; and because they can’t get jobs, they’re forced to roll the dice as interns at Google, where they join a team of misfits and compete, for a job, against a bunch of other teams, including a team led by a true douchebag, Graham Hautrey (Max Minghella), who has it in for our team of sad-sack misfits. And while our team starts poorly, eventually, in the Hollywood tradition of misfit teams, they come together and begin to win and have a chance. Ah, but team leader Billy lets them down and gives up and walks away. But then he’s called back! At the last second! And they finally win! And there’s the stripper!
So it’s like “Monsters University” but more cartoony. And with a stripper.
Who are these other misfits? There’s the ostensible leader, Lyle (Josh Brener), a nerd who uses hip-hop slang and has the hots for the part-time Google dance instructor Marielena (Jessica Szohr); Stuart (Dylan O’Brien), who can’t bother to look up from his smartphone; Neha (Tia Sircar), a supercute girl who likes nerdy things (cosplay, etc.) but somehow still can’t get a date; and Yo-Yo (Tobit Raphael), the home-schooled son of a Tiger Mother, who pulls at his eyebrow when he feels like he’s done something bad.
I liked Yo-Yo. He felt new.
How do they come together as a team? Do I have to say? Actually, see if you can pick out the most absurd element on their road to victory.
They go partying. Yep. They wind up in a Chinatown restaurant, where Billy orders their meal in Mandarin, and then at a high-end strip club, where they do shots, and get lap dances, and where Neha takes a shower with her clothes on and Lyle hooks up with Marielena, who, oops (she’s so embarrassed!), is a high-end stripper and lap dancer as well as being the part-time Google dance instructor. So if Google paid her more, would she not have to strip? No one raises that point. But of course she’s interested in Lyle! What high-end lap-dancer doesn’t want a serious relationship with Dilton Doiley? Then there’s a fight (over Marielena), and afterwards, as dawn breaks beautifully over the Golden Gate Bridge, our team, recounting its crazy night, comes up with an app that wins the next event.
So: What’s the most absurd element from this crazy night? The Lyle/Marielena relationship? The fight? The fact that Neha was totally cool being in a high-end strip club where women walked around in lingerie sucking on men’s fingers?
For me it’s the Mandarin. It means that Billy is in sales, and he speaks Mandarin, and somehow he still can’t get a job.
Does Hollywood know what year it is?
Cheering for losing
There are cameos by Will Ferrell and Rob Riggle, both playing major assholes, and Nick winds up romancing a beautiful Google executive, Dana (Rose Byrne), who just never had time for a relationship but now suddenly does with a half-hearted Owen Wilson. I could barely watch their scenes together. They were so awful, I just wanted to crawl away.
Sales turns out to be the final event, which is perfect for our team. And at the last minute they nail the sale, the douche is shown up, and everyone at Google, including the other intern teams who have just lost, and thus lost the chance at their dream job, stand and cheer for our team, because that’s what always happens in the real world. Then everything else falls into place. Nick winds up with Dana, Stuart with Neha, and Yo-Yo tells off his tiger mom, who looks proud that he does so. Oh, and Lyle winds up with the stripper. Because that’s what she’s doing there. Because that relationship has no chance of not failing.
Google “shitty movie.”
Movie Review: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)
It’s a rigged game.
I don’t mean the Hunger Games. I mean “The Hunger Games.”
The film’s creators, or possibly author Suzanne Collins (I’m not sure which since I haven’t cracked a spine in the series), rig the first game, “The Hunger Games,” by ensuring that Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) never loses favor with us by never actually killing anyone in cold blood in this kill-or-be-killed world. She triumphs without real blood on her hands.
Now, in the sequel, “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” the game really is rigged—this time by the other characters, particularly the game’s creator, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman). He’s using it, and Katniss, as a means to foment rebellion. As a result, once again she doesn’t have to kill in cold blood. Once again, when given the choice between murder and mercy, she goes with mercy. Once again, this never backfires on her.
But there’s a bigger reason why “The Hunger Games” is a rigged game: for a dictatorship, the Capitol comes pretty weak and dumb.
Dictatorship and distraction
Early on, for example, Plutarch gives Pres. Snow (Donald Sutherland) a way out:
Snow: She has become a beacon of hope for them. She has to be eliminated.
Plutarch: I agree she should die but in the right way. At the right time. ... Katniss Everdeen is a symbol. We don't have to destroy her, just her image. Show them that she's one of us now. Let them rally behind that.
The districts are already beginning to rebel. So he suggests a crackdown with public whippings and executions, then show these on television interspersed with shots of Katniss, the supposed rebel hero, shopping, trying on make-up, trying on a wedding dress. “They're gonna hate her so much,” he says, “they just might kill her for you.”
Great idea. So what happens to it?
Barely anything. The troops crack down on District 12, Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsowrth, Thor’s brother) tackles Commander Thread (Patrick St. Espirit), and gets a public whipping for it. But guess who comes to the rescue? Katniss. And guess who comes to her rescue? Haymitch (Woody Harrelson). And guess who comes to his rescue? Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). And that’s that. She’s a heroine all over again because everyone saw enough of her bravery on television. So now Pres. Snow wants a new plan, even though it never looks like the first plan went into effect. And that’s when Plutarch reveals that all the previous winners, including Katniss, compete for the 75th Hunger Games. Which is why we get Katniss is another Hunger Games.
That’s one major problem. Here’s another. Early on, Gale says this to Katniss:
People are looking to you, Katniss. You've given them an opportunity. They just have to be brave enough to take it.
Here’s the thing, though. They are brave enough to take it. They are rebelling. The one who isn’t brave enough is Katniss. She keeps pulling back. Sure, Pres. Snow has threatened her mother and sister and hunky hunk Gale, but so what? She has a chance to change an awful, awful world. She just doesn’t grab it. Instead she encourages folks forward, like the old black man, who gives her the third-fingered salute and four-note whistle, and he gets executed before her distraught eyes.
Instead of trying to do something, Katniss plays along with the ruse: that she and Peeta are in love and about to get married and yadda yadda. Why does she do this again? I’ve actually forgotten. At one point, Haymitch tells her this:
From now on, your job is to be a distraction so people forget what the real problems are.
But a distraction to which people? Those in the districts or in the Capitol? Or both? It seems like it should be in the districts but they never seem distracted. They never seem fooled. They never forget who the true enemy is.
I’m sorry, but the more I think about this movie the dumber it gets. If you have dictatorial powers, as Snow does, and control over the media, as this government does, then how can you not besmirch a name? It’s called propaganda. Do we need FOX-News to show him how it’s done?
In 1985 Neil Postman published a book, “Amusing Ourselves to Death, “ in which he argued that of the two great dystopian novels from the first half of the 20th century—Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” and George Orwell’s “1984”—it was actually the former, whose weapon of governmental control was distraction, rather than the latter, whose weapon was dictatorship, that was the more prescient and more deadly. The point is this: the Capitol has both dicatorship and distraction—and a rebel hero uninterested in rebellion—and they still can’t control her.
Talk about a rigged game.
The most successful formula in movie history
Anyway there goes Katniss into another Hunger Games. Here are the bad dudes from District 1. Here’s a bit of practice. Here are possible allies. Here are the interviews conducted by cloyingly sentimental host Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci, channeling Jiminy Glick). And off they go.
The acting talent here is amazing for this type of movie. Along with the previously mentioned names, Elizabeth Banks is choice as the gloriously frivilous Effie Trinket; and both Amanda Plummer and Jeffrey Wright are perfect as a half-cerebral, half-crazy Hunger Games team.
So what is it about this movie, this series, that makes it so popular? People talk about what a positive role model Katniss is, blah blah, but I think it boils down to the oldest, most successful formula in movie history: a strong woman having to choose between two men against a backdrop of tragedy. That’s “Gone with the Wind,” “Sound of Music,” “Titanic,” the “Twilight” series, and now “Hunger Games.” And like the “Twilight” series, the final “Hunger Games” is split into two parts: one for 2014, one for 2015.
I hope that distracts you enough that you forget what the real problems are.
Movie Review: Dallas Buyers Club (2013)
There's your best actor. Maybe supporting, too.
That’s what I kept thinking watching “Dallas Buyers Club,” directed by Jean-Marc Valée (“The Young Victoria”) and written by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack. For a time I was even thinking best picture, maybe, possibly, a candidate anyway, but then the movie lost something in its final third. Was it the battle between Ron Woodruff (Matthew McConaughey) and the various government agencies (IRS, FDA and DEA)? Was that too obvious? Was it the absence of Rayon (Jared Leto) after her death? Was it the presence of Jennifer Garner as Dr. Eve Saks? Garner was out of her element here. She came onscreen and the energy just drained away.
But McConaughey? Hoo boy.
Gotta die somehow
He plays a good ol’ boy: a Texas electrician, part-time rodeo rider, and full-time racounteur. The first images we see are of a bucking bull from behind the fence. Since we also hear snorting, we think we’re getting the bull’s perspective, but it’s actually Woodruff banging a girl in the bull’s pen. He looks a bit thin and tired and has a persistent cough. Bad sign. A cough in the first act is like the gun in the first act.
AIDS comes into the conversation quickly via headlines about Rock Hudson. Woodruff is hardly sympathetic:
Woodruff: You hear Rock Hudson was a cocksucker?
Friend: Where’d you hear that?
Woodruff: It’s called a newspaper.
He’s more immediately concerned about a rodeo bet he made that went awry. He’s running from the men he owes money to—nearly a dozen cowboys, from the looks—when he runs into a friend, a cop, Tucker (Steve Zahn), who’s had to deal with this before and won’t protect him now. So Woodruff gets inventive. He decks Tucker. On the ride home, Tucker tries to give him some sound advice about his reckless nature and how it’ll likely get him killed. “Gotta die somehow,” Woodruff says in that smooth McConaughey voice. He says it like he’ll live forever.
A few days later, there’s an accident at work and he’s taken to the hospital, where he’s told by two doctors wearing surgical masks that he has both HIV and full-blown AIDS. His reaction is interesting. “You’re fucking kidding me,” he says. When Dr. Savard (Denis O’Hare) recounts the ways people contract HIV, beginning with homosexual sex, his reaction gets more interesting. “I ain’t no faggot, motherfucker!” The doctor remains calm and gives him 30 days to live but Woodruff is still on the first two stages of the five stages of grief: denial and anger. “There ain’t nothing out there that can kill Ron Woodruff in 30 days!” he shouts.
Over the next 30 days, he’ll go through the next two stages: bargaining and depression. At the library, he researches the disease, realizes how he contracted it (sex with an IV drug user, I believe, but it’s a bit murky), and searches for a cure that doesn’t exist. AZT is the drug bandied about, and trials are being done, but there’s a chance you’re in the control group—the sugar pill group—and he’s not willing to take that chance. So he gets inventive again. At a strip club he sees an orderly from the hospital and bribes him to get him AZT drugs, which he washes down with whiskey and cocaine.
During this period, friends abandon him. There’s a great scene where he goes to his usual bar, orders his usual drink, heads to his usual table of friends. But they’re no longer his friends. They call him faggot. He’s immediately ready to fight them all, and they want to kick his ass, but an interesting dynamic occurs. No one wants to touch him. No one wants to get within 10 feet of him. He’s a like-poled magnet: He takes a step forward and they a step back. He spits on them and curses the place as he leaves. He’ll do this a lot during the movie. I lost track of the number of times he left a room shouting, “Fuck all y’all!”
By the end of the 30-day period he’s left with nothing: no friends, no home (he finds his trailer home padlocked, with FAGGOT BLOOD spraypainted on the side), and the AZT is only making him worse. Plus it runs out. But the orderly gives him an address in Mexico, outside the realm of the FDA, so that’s where he heads. Because Ron Woodruff may be a lying homophobic asshole, but in this movie he never winds up on the fifth stage of grief: acceptance. He thrives at stages 2 and 3: anger and bargaining.
FDA, DEA, etc.
It’s in Mexico that the story really begins. I didn’t know this going in. All of this came as a pleasant surprise for me.
Near death, he’s saved, for the time being, by Dr. Vass (Griffin Dunne, in a great cameo), who lost his license in the states, and who counsels against AZT, which destroys all cells, both good and bad. Instead, Ron should concentrate on building up his immune system with vitamins, zinc, and aloe. He also recommends DDC, a less-toxic anti-viral, and Peptide T, a non-toxic protein, neither of which are approved by the FDA. He thinks about all the AIDS sufferers in Dallas and says, “You could make a fortune off this stuff,” and a light goes off. CUT TO: filling his trunk with drugs for the trip back. There he starts the Dallas Buyers Club, modeled after similar clubs in New York. Since it’s illegal to sell non-FDA-approved drugs, he sells memberships into a club, which dispenses the drugs.
He partners with a transexual, Rayon, and soon has lines forming outside the motel room they’ve set up. He also attracts the attention of the usual government agencies: FDA, DEA, etc. A battle is enjoined and lessons are learned. He becomes more tolerant of gay people, for example. He keeps using the epithet “Cocksucker” but now it’s for FDA officials. That’s the journey he takes: from anti-gay to anti-government.
Some have complained, or celebrated, that this makes the movie too Tea Party, but for me it’s just too simplistic. It’s the brash homophobe protecting the poor gay folks who can’t protect themselves. The government gets blamed but not the infamously homophobic Reagan administration. Some of the casting doesn’t help. When I first saw Denis O’Hare as Dr. Sevard, I thought, “Oh, it’s the guy who usually plays a corporate asshole. Nice that he gets to play a ... No, he’s a corporate asshole here, too.” Kevin Rankin, the white-trash dirtbag of “White House Down” and “Breaking Bad,” plays a white-trash dirtbag. Michael O’Neill, who usually plays a bureaucratic douche, plays the main FDA douche. Etc.
But Jared Leto is a revelation and McConaughey is uncompromising in his portrayal. He’s corralled his charm and energy into the service of full-dimensional characters in good movies.
I did like the scene at the end before the district court in San Francisco. Woodruff has sued to use and sell non-FDA approved drugs but loses. It’s the language of the judge that I appreicated—the difference between law and justice:
Mr. Woodroof, there is not a person in this courtroom who is not moved to compassion by your plight. What is lacking here is the legal authority to intervene. I’m sorry.
What do you call that? A liberal judge not legislating from the bench.
I also like the final images: Woodruff riding a bull at a rodeo. You wonder if it’s current, if he’s gotten well enough to do that again, but it’s both flashback and metaphor. This is what he’s been doing the entire movie, and he finally gets thrown on September 12, 1992. He was given 30 days and took more than 2,000.
But then we get another title that dampens the effect of much of the movie: we’re informed that lower doses of AZT, the devil drug in the movie, wound up leading to the cure we currently have. So it was hardly a devil drug; it was just dispensed improperly. It confuses the movie’s clean formulaic lines, suggesting that maybe they shouldn’t have been so clean and formulaic.
But “Dallas Buyers Club” is still a movie worth seeing—for its performances, its energy, the fact that there’s comedy and adventure in a movie about AIDS. It’s also a good reminder of what AIDS and homophobia felt like 30 years ago.
Movie Review: Parkland (2013)
The saddest American day of my lifetime probably occurred when I was 10 months old. We keep telling it again and again. We keep probing the wound. Sometimes I think we like it. It makes us feel something even if that feeling is overwhelming sadness and horror for all that was lost. In this way the assassination of Pres. John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963 in Dallas, Texas, is, for Americans, what the Onion Cellar in Gunter Grass’ novel “The Tin Drum” is for Germans: a place to go to cry.
But since we keep telling it, how do you tell it anew?
Writer and first-time director Peter Landesman does just that in “Parkland,” a 90-minute film based on Vincent Bugliosi’s book “Four Days in November.” Landesman doesn’t tell the story from the perspective of the principal characters; he tells it from the perspective of the people whose lives that day were peripherally if monumentally affected: Abraham Zapruder, who shot the 8mm footage of the assassination; James Hosty, from the Dallas FBI office, who had been tracking Oswald, and who, in the aftermath, was blamed and even fingered by conspiracy theorists; Robert Oswald, brother of Lee, whose family name was forever besmirched; and the various doctors and nurses at Parkland Memorial Hospital, who tried to save both Pres. Kennedy that Friday and his assassin two days later.
History’s supporting players
It’s a movie about history’s supporting players starring great supporting actors. Marcia Gay Harden, who won the Oscar for supporting actress in 2000 (“Pollock”), plays Doris Nelson, the supervising nurse at Parkland. Paul Giamatti, nominated in 2005 for “Cinderella Man,” plays Zapruder, a man of enthusiasms, an immigrant who loved America and then unknowingly but unflinchingly filmed one of its great horrors. Billy Bob Thornton (supporting nom for “A Simple Plan” in 1998) is Forrest Sorrels, head of the local FBI office, Jackie Earle Haley (“Little Children” in 2006) plays the priest who administers last rites, and Jacki Weaver (“Animal Kingdom” in 2010 and “Silver Linings Playbook” in 2012) is spooky as the Oswald matriarch, Marguerite, who insists that her son was an American agent who had done a great deed, and that her family would “never be ordinary again.”
Add in James Badge Dale as Bob Oswald, Ron Livington as Hosty, Colin Hanks as Dr. Malcolm Perry, the attending physician, and a couple of former teen heartthrobs—Zac Efron as the resident doctor who first began working on Pres. Kennedy, and Tom Welling as Roy Kellerman, the secret service agent who rode in the presidential limousine—and you’ve got quite a cast. Everyone’s good. A few (Harden, Weaver) are outstanding.
The details make the movie. Zapruder knew immediately. Everyone else is rushing around but he knew. I like the way Dr. Perry, in a board meeting, says “Five minutes” when told he’s needed in O.R. Nothing was ready. Secret service agents had to demand a stretcher and then rush through the narrow hallways to the small operating room. Blood was everywhere and on everyone. Zapruder is horrified by the “undignified end for a very dignified man” but he doesn’t know the half of it. Kennedy’s clothes are cut away during the futile attempt to revive him. Jackie continues to clutch portions of her husband’s skull and brain, as if they will be needed to put him back together. There is a shouting and shoving match in the operating room between Kellerman, who insists on bringing the body back to Washington, D.C., and Earl Rose (Rory Cochrane), the Dallas coroner, who insists on performing the autopsy there, as required by law. The body, in a casket, is then rushed to Love Field and a dozen strong men shakily, almost frantically carry it onto Air Force One. Chairs have been removed in anticipation (“We’re not carrying it below like a piece of luggage!” one man says), but a partition still has to be ripped out by Kellerman to make the turn. There’s such a rushed, frantic quality to all of this, it’s as if they’re making a getaway. It’s as if they’re trying to escape a nightmare. They are and they are.
We also get moments of dignity and solemnity. The last rites, for example; and the crucifix retrieved by Doris Nelson from her locker.
In Landesman’s account, the doctors and nurses come off well, Rose less so, and the local FBI office, where records of a visit by Oswald two weeks earlier were destroyed, not at all. At the same time, one member, Sorrels, in browline eyeglasses and compact fedora, never loses his cool, nor his sense of the enormity of the situation, as he guides Zapruder in the development of his 8mm footage, commiserates with Bob Oswald (“I feel sorry for you”), and gives us one of the film’s few funny lines, as he stands in the operating room while the same doctors and nurses that worked on JFK work on Lee Harvey Oswald:
Sorrels: We need a confession.
Nelson: What if he dies?
Sorrels: We need a confession first.
In the end, the two funerals are juxtaposed: the stately funeral for Pres. Kennedy, attended by all, mourned over by all, while Bob Oswald, with his crazy mother, attempts to bury his brother, whose body no church cemetery will take, who has no pallbearers, and who is hand-buried by Bob and two black gravediggers. It’s a pauper’s funeral on a cold, gray Texas day for the most despised man in the world.
“Parkland,” distributed by Exclusive Media, seems to have gotten a similar pauper’s burial. It was barely in theaters, and unlike Oswald it didn’t deserve this rush job, nor its 47% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s a good movie that focuses on the small within the historic. It gives us all the sad details.
Movie Review: 12 Years a Slave (2013)
If “12 Years a Slave” is the greatest film ever made about the American slave experience it’s partially because it doesn’t have much competition.
What comes to mind? “Amistad”? Meh. “Roots”? TV. “Mandingo”? Please. The very dearth makes one question what so-called liberal Hollywood has been up to for the last 100 years. The Holocaust ended 80 years after slavery but already has its masterpieces: “The Pianist,” “Schindler’s List,” “Nuit et Brouillard,” “Shoah.” American slavery has “Birth of a Nation” and “Gone with the Wind.” Insert rebel yell here.
Is it telling that “12 Years” was directed by a Brit (Steve McQueen), and stars mostly Brits (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch)? Is the story of slavery, in other words, still too close to us even after 150 years? It’s our shame and who wants to broadcast their shame? Plus there are practical questions. How will it sell in the South, for one.
Maybe it’s as simple as this: Slavery is long gone but we’re still working through its consequences. We all agree, give or take, that slavery was wrong, but white Americans still disagree vehemently on racial matters. Black Americans, too. It’s the dialogue we either never really have or never stop having. Both.
All of that is partially why “12 Years” is the greatest film ever made about the American slave experience. It also happens to be a very powerful film. Its power lies in understatement, and stillness, and holding onto the horror rather than flinching away from it or turning it into melodrama—as recent films have done with the Holocaust and the Rape of Nanjing. McQueen shows you a man half-lynched, and holds on it and holds on it. Comedians have a phrase for this—commitment to the bit—but McQueen isn’t demonstrating its tragic side. His camera almost feels non-judgmental. It’s a cold camera, the way Stanley Kubrick’s was a cold camera. The heat, the horror, are up to us to provide.
The worst master
The movie is based upon a true story. Or upon an 1853 book that was based upon a true story.
Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor ) was a free-born African-American living with his wife and family in Saratoga, N.Y., who, in 1841, was traduced, drugged and sold into slavery in Louisiana. There, he had masters both benevolent (Cumberbatch as Ford) and sadistic (Fassbender as Edwin Epps), and the question, going in, and given the title, is how he gets back after 12 years.
Despite the dearth mentioned above, the horrors of slavery in the antebellum South aren’t exactly unfamiliar to us: whippings, lynchings, general inhumanity. But McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley (“Red Tails”; “Three Kings”) still give us unexpected details and subtleties. The slave auction takes place, not outside on the docks, but inside a well-appointed New Orleans home. Half the slaves are naked, and inspected, but there’s little that’s malicious or lascivious about this; they’re inspected the way you would inspect a piece of furniture. They’re commodity. That’s the horror. Not in maliciousness—the sneering and leering lesser filmmakers bring—but in how ordinary it all is.
There’s a surprising freedom within slavery. Solomon, renamed Platt, and passed off as a runaway from Georgia, is allowed to walk to the general store to pick up supplies. He’s allowed to suggest and prove to Ford a means of transporting goods via river raft. He’s allowed to do carpentry work. Then he misunderstands his situation. He talks back to one of the overseers, Tibeats (Paul Dano), and winds up fighting and even whipping Tibeats, who returns with two friends to lynch him. They nearly succeed but for the other overseer, Chapin (J.D. Evermore), who stops them but does nothing to stop Solomon’s pain. He leaves him, half-choking on the rope, and on his toes for hours until Ford arrives and cuts him down.
An argument can be made that the benevolent master, Ford, is actually worse than the sadistic master, Epps, since there is no doubt in Epps’ mind, none at all, that his slaves are anything but his property. So why shouldn’t he treat his property the way he wants? Ford’s different. He knows slavery isn’t right. But he still buys into it. He still purchases Solomon and separates a mother from her children. He may save Solomon from a lynching but when Solomon tells him he’s a free man, illegally brought to the South, he doesn’t help him; he sells him. He has debt, and Platt still has value. That’s what you do in capitalism. You buy low, sell high, and sometimes you cut your losses. He cut Platt.
Solomon makes a few feints at escape. On the first trip to the general store, he ducks into the woods only to come across a lynching. On a subsequent trip, he steals a piece of parchment, uses berry juice as ink, writes a letter to send home. But the man he trusts betrays him and he burns the letter, and, with it, most of his hope.
His demeanor and Latinate vocabulary changes. He avoids eye contact, suffers, ages. One slave, Patsy (Lupita Nyong’o), a source of tension between Epps and his wife (Sarah Paulson) because of Epps’ desire for her, asks Solomon to kill her. He refuses on religious grounds. Later, because she dares get a bar of soap, she is whipped—not by Epps (at least initially) but by Platt. Epps forces him and he has no other choice. This is the key to the movie—the shift from the many options of a free man to the one of a slave—and is brought home immediately in the shabby building on the outskirts of D.C. when Northup awakes in chains for the first time. He stands and tells his enslavers his name is Solomon Northup and he is a free-born man. The men nod and crank the chains down until he is on all fours. Then they whip him. Then they whip him again. Then they take his torn and blood-splattered shirt and give him a slave shirt.
If there’s a fault in the film, a void, it may be Solomon’s isolation within the slave community. I don’t know if this is historically accurate—a result of the fact that Solomon is an educated free man living among uneducated slaves—or if it’s because director Steve McQueen tends deal in isolation. In “Hunger,” Bobby Sands (Fassbender) is physically isolated in a British prison; in “Shame,” Brandon (Fassbender again) is psychologically isolated by his sexual addiction. Now we get Solomon in the South.
With whom does he bond? Initially with two other free-born men sold into slavery: Clemens (Chris Chalk) and Robert (Michael K. Williams). The three plot and discuss their options. But on the voyage to New Orleans, Robert develops smallpox, dies, and is tossed overboard; and at port, Clemens’ white benefactor shows up to free him, and Clemens ignores, or can do nothing about, Solomon’s cries for help. No help is forthcoming. He’s alone.
On the Ford plantation, Solomon bonds mostly with Ford. On the Epps’ plantation, he bonds a bit with Patsy but shares the stage mostly with Epps. The other slaves aren’t even flat characters; they’re stick figures in the background. He and Patsy meet Mistress Shaw (Alfre Woodard) at another plantation, who, in classic American fashion, has raised herself up from field slave to domestic servant to someone who is now served; but there’s no bond there, either. It’s a one-off. It’s a lesson. During a cottonwood infestation, he’s loaned to Judge Turner (Bryan Batt), where he harvests sugar cane during the day and engages in silent nighttime sex with (Ashley Dyke), but we don’t hear a word from her. During the funeral of a slave, lost in despair, Solomon begins to sing the blues with everyone else. He joins their song. But he doesn’t bond.
Again, I don’t know if this makes the story more historically accurate. It might even make the story better. But it is a void.
Even so, go. Please. “12 Years a Slave” is one of the best movies of the year about the great American tragedy. The movie’s power lies in its restraint. It holds something back for pressure, as Robert Frost said about good poetry. You can feel this restraint, this pressure, in McQueen’s direction, Ejiofor’s performance, and the soundtrack music by Hans Zimmer. You want release and they don’t give it.
In some respects, the standout performance is Fassbender’s. He’s ferocious not just in his sadism but in his righteousness. There’s no doubt in his eyes. These people are his. When the local sheriff, and Solomon’s white benefactor from the North, show up on the plantation to finally free Solomon after 12 long years, we get no cheap thrills, no sense of vindication from a beaten Epps. The opposite. His righteousness grows. Some government functionary is repossessing his property? Even though he paid for it? He’ll see about this. And off he rides to seek restitution. He’s ready to start a civil war over it.
There are no cheap thrills at the end, either. It’s a happy ending but it’s not a Hollywood ending. Solomon greets his family, including his new son-in-law, after 12 years away, with tears of genuine sorrow. “I apologize for my appearance,” he says. “But I have had a difficult time these past several years.”
Producer Bill Pohlad has said of the film, “We felt there's never been a film about slavery that dealt with it in such an unflinching way.”
Now we have one.
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