12 YEARS A SLAVE Drama: Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Lupita Nyong'o, Sarah Paulson, Paul Giamatti, Scoot McNairy, Alfre Woodward, Brad Pitt Directed by Steve McQueen Cert 15A
GIVEN that the plot spoiler is in the title, we're free to take a long, hard look at Turner Prize-winning artist Steve McQueen's third film as a director. His debut, Hunger, featured some excellent touches but bordered on Provo propaganda as IRA terrorist Bobby Sands committed slow suicide (his choice, so what?), while Shame was a study of sex addiction that looked good initially but, on repeated viewings, was revealed as a hollow, shallow affair.
So, aside from occasional stretches which were more suited to a gallery installation than the multiplex, can McQueen deliver a rounded, coherent story? 12 Years a Slave proves that he can.
Granted, he and screenwriter John Ridley are working with the strongest of material here, namely the memoir of Solomon Northup, published just before the outbreak of the American Civil War and detailing the horrors of daily life in the Southern slave states. Northup (played by British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor) was a free man, an experienced carpenter and talented musician from Saratoga, New York, with a loving wife and young family who agreed to undertake a well-paid short tour with a travelling circus only to arrive in Washington DC where he was drugged at a meal and awoke to find himself in chains.
The sheer horror conveyed when Solomon wakes to find his freedom has been taken is bad enough; then the beatings begin and he's told his identity is now Platt, a runaway Georgia slave, but McQueen then pulls his first masterstroke, raising his camera from the squalid cell where Solomon and several others are held to reveal that they're within sight of the Capitol Building. Welcome to the land of the not-so-free.
The brutality and inhumanity of slavery quickly unfolds as the human cargo is shipped southwards, and the well-educated Solomon realises he'd better keep his mouth shut in order to survive and try to find a way out of his terrible predicament. He's eventually sold to a plantation owner, Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), who appears relatively benign compared with what we've already witnessed, but the very system of slavery means that no one remains untouched by this evil.
Ford's chief overseer, John Tibeats (Paul Dano), is a snivelling wretch of a man who realises Solomon is far, far smarter than him and eventually provokes him into a violent reaction. This results in an attempted lynching which McQueen shows us in a long, lingering take, Solomon struggling to maintain his footing on muddy ground as the daily life of the plantation goes on in the background. A masterful and harrowing piece of cinema.
By the time Solomon is sold on to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender, starring in his third McQueen movie), we are truly deep into the heart of darkness of this vile economy. Fassbender is terrifying as Epps, a psychopath capable of playing with a negro child and lashing its mother to within an inch of her life within hours. His treatment of cotton-picker and sexual plaything Patsey (Lupina Nyong'o in a brilliant debut) recalls that of Amon Goeth towards his housemaid Helen Hirsch in Schindler's List, lust one moment and self-loathing leading to violence the next.
If anything, Epps' wife (Sarah Paulson) is arguably worse. This is no Scarlett O'Hara conversing with Prissy in Gone With the Wind but naked loathing and jealousy, fuelled in part by the fact that her husband clearly prefers Patsey's bed to their own. As you'd expect, things don't end too well here.
Throughout these horrors and the frustration felt by Solomon as he gradually feels himself becoming resigned to his fate, Ejiofor delivers a great performance, hiding his anger but letting the audience know that there's still a desire to get home burning deep inside.
McQueen doesn't let his arthouse inclinations get in the way too much here, keeping scenes simple and letting the shocking story develop and breathe. In many ways 12 Years a Slave is the anti-Django Unchained, in which that clown Tarantino used slavery as a backdrop for a Blaxploitation revenge movie. This is a raw and visceral experience, one that will haunt you long after you've left the cinema and one that deserves to be seen.
DELIVERY MAN Comedy/Drama: Starring Vince Vaughn, Chris Pratt, Cobie Smulders, Britt Robertson, Jack Reynor, Simon Delaney, Sebastian Rene, Adam Chanier-Berat Directed by Ken Scott Cert 12A
IF you were to believe the posters on Dublin's buses, you'd be expecting a typical Vince Vaughn romp full of knockabout fun.
There are some pratfalls, but this remake of the 2009 French Canadian movie Starbuck isn't quite the laughathon you might be looking for. Luckily, writer and original director Ken Scott is at the helm, but it doesn't really qualify as an out-and-out comedy.
Van driver David Wozniak (Vaughn) freaks out when his on/off girlfriend Emma (Cobie Smulders) tells him she's pregnant. Then a lawyer tells him that the, ahem, 694 sperm donations he made to a clinic between 1991 and 1994 have produced 533 children, 150 of whom now want to know who their biological father is.
What follows is David following/stalking several of his offspring until events spiral out of control and a court case ensues.
Scott manages to keep things the right side of being overly sentimental, and while Vaughn can't really act he's perfectly fine in this. Nods too for Simon Delaney and Jack Reynor (don't think we'll see that lad back for a while) in small but decent supporting roles.
ALSO RELEASED THIS WEEK: Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman star in The Railway Man, in which a railway obsessive is haunted by his past as a POW of the Japanese but, yet again, distributors Lionsgate didn't arrange for an Irish press screening.