Movies in the horror genre sometimes run into the problem of being too effective. A horror film can be so frightening, gruesome, or depressing that it turns the audience off (except, of course, for the subset of die-hard fans who love the really extreme stuff.) A good movie can work its dark wonders so well that it becomes unpleasant to watch.
“12 Years a Slave” is like that. It’s so unpleasant that it might just qualify as a horror movie. The atrocities perpetrated against slaves in the film are not far in character from the grisly torture porn of “Saw.” And of course, it’s even more unsettling because it’s a true story. This is a long, well-made, well-acted movie that becomes a grueling test of the audience’s capacity for horror. Maybe that’s the point – you’re supposed to feel somewhat numb to the inhumanity on display by the time you reach the extremely abrupt ending. Perhaps that’s the only way to understand why these awful deeds were so widespread, back in the dark days of slavery. There is great danger for a civilization that grows numb to outrage.
Based on his writings, this is the story of Solomon Northup, an educated free man from New York who was kidnapped and shipped South into twelve years of slave labor. It seems amazing, even now, that such a thing could have happened. But as the film illustrates, once Northup had been dragged into slavery, no one wanted to hear the truth, or ruminate on his obvious culture and education.
That includes his first, relatively sympathetic owner, a man of comparable sophistication played by Benedict Cumberbatch, who very clearly knows Northup is not the recaptured Georgia plantation slave he was sold as. That makes the Cumberbatch character arguably more horrifying than the brutal psychopaths who torment Northup throughout the film. He knows better, he genuinely likes Northup and appreciates his musical talents… but still he says nothing, explicitly refusing to believe the truth when the kidnapped man sobs it into his face during their last conversation.
Every dimension of human evil is explored during this horrifying story. There is a long, agonizing scene in which Northup tries to stay alive during an aborted lynching, by standing on tiptoes in the mud, while the rest of the slaves trudge from their shacks to go about their daily business, studiously ignoring his plight. What must be done to people, to break them until only a single person dares come to the aid of a man who is being slowly murdered in broad daylight, and then only to give him a drink of water?
“12 Years a Slave” is held together by a soulful, dignified Chiwetel Elijofor, who once upon a time made the exact opposite impression playing a soulless fascist killer in “Serenity.” He carries every day of Solomon Northup’s suffering in his eyes, but refuses to give in to despair, delivering several memorable speeches on the subject.
There are no framing devices to mark the passage of time, making the whole experience seem like a dream-walk through Hell. It ends suddenly enough to be unsettling, which is probably the intent, but it’s also unsatisfying to see virtually nothing of how this extraordinary ordeal affected Northup and his family, once it was finally over. A bit of history delivered on title cards is not enough catharsis for what the rest of the film inflicts upon its audience. It’s not an enjoyable experience, and it’s not supposed to be, which makes “12 Years a Slave” easy to appreciate as an achievement, but harder to recommend as a night at the movies.