Steve McQueen reunites with Michael Fassbender for his newest feature film, 12 Years A Slave, based off the autobiography of the same name by Solomon Northup. Northup, played by British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor (most notably of Children of Men and American Gangster), was a carpenter and fiddle player living in Saratoga, NY with his family in the 1840s. With his wife and children away on work, Northup accepts an offer to travel to Washington D.C. and perform with a circus along the way. Their final night in the city, Northup is paid and they go out to celebrate. He wakes in chains, locked in a room just outside the city.

They make their way further down South, where he's unloaded in Louisiana and eventually sold to Benedict Cumberbatch's William Ford. The first plantation is is a familiar sight—Ford is a Baptist preacher and *cough* sympathetic slaver. He's compassionate. During the slave auction, after purchasing another slave named Eliza, he even tries to buy her daughter so that she isn't separated from both her children.

Solomon, now being called Pratt, makes an immediate impact on Ford's plantation when he suggests, much to the chagrin of second-in-command John Tibeats (played with a great impotent violence by Paul Dano that harkens back to his There Will Be Blood character) that they could send timber down the marsh stream to cut down on transportation time. Ford rewards Solomon with a fiddle.

This is one of the first issues that the audience has to deal with. Slave Exceptionalism. Solomon is different, better, both because he doesn't belong there (he was a free man) and because he is, I suppose, better at being a slave than the other slaves. This makes him more valuable and more threatening. But under the watch of the benevolent Ford, Solomon, apparently, has room to rise. It's a tough, bitter pill to swallow because we want Solomon to do well and make it out of this, but it all occurs on a slave plantation during slavery. He is at least afforded minor comforts for pleasing the master and it's a small, deluded, and gross victory that we excitedly, and regrettably, share in with Solomon amidst universally horrific conditions.

Tibeats is outsmarted and emasculated, eventually attacking Solomon in a fit of rage. In a cathartic turn, Solomon defends himself, rips the whip from Tibeats' hands and returns a lashing on him. Any emotional release or satisfaction, alas, is predicated on an illusion and decimated in the immediate aftermath. Solomon's defiant act has no upside. Now "with a reputation" of not only being rebellious but resourceful, he is shipped off to the cotton plantation of Michael Fassbender's Edwin Epps, a brutal alcoholic "slave-breaker" that is violently and repressively in love with one of his slaves, Patsey.

Epps drinks constantly, measures the amount of cotton they pick at the end of each day, and often breaks into their quarters late at night, rousing them to dance in his dining room. His wife Mary, played by Sarah Paulson, turns in one of the more disturbing performances for its sheer quietness. Mary's rage bubbles under the surface, exploding on Patsey at random.

**MINOR SPOILER** Solomon eventually is able to reveal his true identity and get word to his family in Saratoga. As Solomon leaves Epps' plantation, Patsey calls out to him, and we fix on Solomon's face as he rides away. There is no happy ending for a film with slavery its stage. We are relieved that Solomon is reunited with his family, but they have grown older now. Solomon is tentative, hesitant, changed at home. We are still in many respects on the plantation.

The whole film is unrelenting. There's one scene at the end that is probably necessary (in that I can't imagine what the film would feel like if it wasn't in there) but it's fucking brutal and gratuitous and heartbreaking. Nothing spectacular about it. Just bad to worse to even worse.

In that scene and many others, McQueen's camera is unwavering. The most powerful moments are afforded shots that remain fixed. And when his camera moves, it moves with grace—slow and deliberate and fine. It floats. The plantations and Deep South scenery are beautiful; fields of blooming cotton and massive oaks are disturbingly peaceful. The palette is natural, earthen, and mostly devoid of bright colors.

But it is the sounds stand out the most, and it's not just the hymnals sung in the field or cracking whips or rattling chains that McQueen's ears are tuned to. But sounds of the riverboat churning as it Solomon is taken south, of crickets in the night, the tuning and stringing and playing of a fiddle, the stomping of feet, the stifled cries.

Fassbender is terrific and legitimately terrifying, playing Epps with an instability that illuminates his void—deeper and deeper go his madness and depravity. It's when he is least crazy that he is the most scary. The movie is obviously Ejiofor's, who is spectacular as he gives traces of Solomon Northup in Pratt the slave. Ejiofor shows us how they can exist within him at once, separately and in communion. It's a masterful performance, more somatic than vocal, and he carries us with him for the entirety.

Lupita Nyong'o, a Kenyan actress making her American film debut in 12 Years A Slave as Patsey is the film's tragic soul. As Patsey has tea one Sunday with Mistress Shaw, the prized former slave at a neighboring plantation, Shaw tells Patsey and Solomon (when he comes to retrieve her) that she used to serve and now she is served by others.

This is not an attainable reality for Patsey, already cemented as the object of Mrs. Epps scorn. Rather, Patsey must endure emotional and sexual abuse before she is punished for that same abuse with physical violence. She has no hope for even a microscopically improved position. There is no respite, ever, for Patsey, and there is nothing extra-ordinary about her circumstances. It may be Solomon's movie but it is Patsey's history. Nyong'o speaks barely, a significant chunk of her lines come in a plea to Solomon to drown her that is heartbreaking with optimism.

Hers is the slave experience. Steve McQueen asked rhetorically, "Can you imagine being born a slave?" The answer is obviously no, and that's why we need Solomon, but damn if this isn't less of a film without Nyong'o.

On the other hand, aside from the major players, the cameos can be momentarily disruptive. Taran Killam, Paul Giamatti, and Brad Pitt are on screen for such little time that it is difficult to get comfortable with their characters. Even Cumberbatch, who gets solid screen time, is dramatically introduced during the slave auction via a cinematic camera pan. Pitt's accent is distracting in its closeness to Lt. Aldo Raine. Killam is also game, and being favorable, it was more a shock of seeing Killam where I didn't expect him. These are truly minor quibbles, though, something that is nearly blameless and nearly insignificant in how I felt about the film. Another watch through and I probably wouldn't notice them, save perhaps Pitt's accent.

As tough as it is to imagine the particular conditions of the slave economy, the film helps us understand the contradictions and paradoxes and tensions that emerge aside from extreme violence and degradation, like the experience of slavery by the plantation owners, the incompatibility of their chosen religion (and how they resolved any cognitive dissonance) with slaving, or the relationship of the slaves to their masters (Mistress Shaw, for example, as a prize slave Mistress or Mr. Epps seething, tortured self-loathing over his love for Patsey). Many slave narratives have encountered these themes, painting a fuller picture of slavery (rather than, say, just the blood), and 12 Years, to its credit, does the same. We'll get back the lashings, but what the fuck does it even mean to be a "good" master?

McQueen told the audience at the press screening that what he liked about Solomon "is that he was a free man. Everyone can relate to him." It's true—we are simultaneously asked and not asked to take slavery as a incontrovertible truth. We see a life (mostly) untouched by it and then we are uprooted into it: its criminality, its transactions, its mundane operations, its psychological impact, its unforgiving brutality. Solomon is variously both a subject and a participant in these moments. In the end, though, we are returned to the life altered by, but ultimately without, slavery. Another necessary development—it's how it happened in reality—but it does manufacture hope out of utter hopelessness.

12 Years A Slave opens in limited release on October 18th. Check out the trailer here.