With the long opening shot of slaves looking straight at us, McQueen sets the tone for a difficult film. It’s not confrontational and it’s not conventionally ‘shocking’ (unless the notion of slavery is completely new to you), yet it’s still an overwhelming piece of work that sucks the viewer in and forces us to watch. I felt like a witness to these events, rather than a mere spectator with popcorn.
It’s a stylish film, a factor that elevates it above most dramas. McQueen sticks to his self-professed rule of function over form, but deploys the latter to make the former work. Every shot is calculated. Every sound resonates through the viewer. Yet there are no vain attempts at art here, everything counts for something, everything serves the story.
The performances are equally as effective. Fassbender is disturbingly in his element as a brutal slaver. Chiwetel Ejiofor maintains a subtle intelligence throughout, more than just raw Oscar-style emotion. Brad Pitt sticks out like a sore thumb and I’m still not sold on Paul Dano but otherwise everyone more than holds their own.
For me though it’s the directorial flair that makes this a success. What’s easy to write off an ‘artsy’ or ‘prententious’, or even out of place, is actually what makes the film work as well as it does.