Movie houses are now so packed with presumptive Academy Award contenders that in a few weeks, when we’re facing Thor 2: Thor Harder and The Hunger Games: Jennifer Lawrence Is Still Contractually Bound To Do This, we may look back on October with nostalgic pining. Gravity is making serious money — summer money — and will likely become the highest-grossing live-action Best Picture nominee since Inception. Captain Phillips is securing its spot in the race with exactly the right combination of influential reviews, appreciative adult audiences, and sorting-the-truth-from-the-filthy-lies backlash (which has become such a ritualized part of the prestige-film gauntlet that nobody really cares). And as All Is Lost gradually goes wider, people are turning out in … well, not in droves. In modest human clumps of a size that indicates the movie will need strong word of mouth to survive in a crowded field. (Potential ticket buyer overheard, verbatim: “That thing about the old man in the boat? No.”)
But the big news remains 12 Years a Slave, which is drawing reasonably big crowds and declamatory raves (“I cried!” — Heterosexual Men) and remains at the epicenter of both awards chatter and cultural discussion. Six weeks ago, I started my coverage of this Oscar season by complaining about the hype-driven festival fever that was preemptively attempting to hand over the Best Picture Oscar to 12 Years. I don’t like line-in-the-sand declarations of inevitability, because it’s a short step from there to inarguability, and the only reason to suggest that anything about a movie is inarguable — even something as trivial as whether it wins a prize — is to nullify further discussion.
When it comes to this movie, that’s the last thing that should happen. There’s no harm in examining 12 Years as — like all films — the product of a series of creative choices, some of which are problematic. After two viewings, I remain somewhat ill at ease with a narrative strategy in which slavery is explored through a rarity within slavery — the story of Solomon Northup, a free man kidnapped from an idyllic, improbably “post-racial” version of 1841 Saratoga Springs, New York, into Southern servitude. (In this well-worn approach, 12 Years has less in common with previous movie treatments of the subject than it does with midcentury Hollywood melodramas like The Wrong Man and The Snake Pit.)
It’s a catch-22, because of course the singularity — the exceptionalism — of Northup’s narrative is one of the very things that makes it worth recounting, but any moment at which you’re invested in the particular injustice of his shackling is also a moment at which you may be insufficiently invested in the larger injustice of any slave’s shackling. Director Steve McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley clearly get this, so they’ve used Northup as an entry point for moviegoers, a fresh pair of eyes (as “modern,” educated, and aghast as our own) through which to bear witness to an evil and dehumanizing stain on American history. But as a result, 12 Years a Slave becomes what it cannot help but become — a visitor’s take, a look at the institution from the outside, and, in a way, from the present. And it’s hard to convey the true obliterating nature of slavery — its systematic attempt to deny and erase humanness — by treating it as a really terrible thing that somebody had to endure for a decade, or as a state of being with an exit door.
This complaint, though, turns out to be something that Fox Searchlight is actually trying to use as a selling point. In a story about the movie’s marketing that ran in the Los Angeles Times on Friday, reporter John Horn suggested that 12 Years faces an uphill climb with Academy members (and probably more to the point, real people) who might be put off by its R-rated bloodiness and unrelenting brutality. (This followed hard on the heels of another story that reported that the film’s initial Academy screening was less than packed.) Perhaps to counteract those critics who, with the best of intentions, made 12 Years sound like a punitive, soul-scorching dose of strong medicine — um, yeah, that sounds great, honey, what else is playing? — Horn noted that Fox Searchlight is now tailoring its campaign to emphasize hope and uplift, and quoted the company’s copresident Nancy Utley as saying, “We always wanted people to know that it’s ’12 Years a Slave,’ not ’1 Million Years a Slave’” — a phrase so misjudged that she would now surely like to take it back and swallow it whole.
I don’t know whether labeling 12 Years a Slave a hard sell is, as some have suggested, a way of undermining the movie via negative campaigning or a canny, thinking-three-moves-ahead way of selling it to Oscar voters. Calling a movie a challenge, after all, gives Academy members permission to congratulate themselves for being tough enough to see it, something they should be doing anyway. My own suspicion is that whether the film manages to find a broad audience or tops out as an arthouse succès d’estime will make very little difference in its quest for a Best Picture nomination. Yes, it’s probable that some dainty or delicate voters will stay away from 12 Years because it’s too rough, or too punishing, or because about a third of the Academy membership is old enough to remember Reconstruction. Big deal. Some voters also stayed away from Precious and The Hurt Locker. The percentage of AMPAS members who will skip the film will not impede its path to multiple nominations; for the majority of the Oscar electorate, the prospect of a serious and important movie that is good — and often better than good — will be appealing enough to mitigate any hand-wringing.
The challenge for 12 Years a Slave will come after the nominations, when the memory of being moved is less fresh and the question “I liked it, but did I love it?” begins to kick in. That’s because McQueen is an easier director to admire than to love. His initial training was as an artist, and his use of stillness and painterly composition is, at different moments, the strength of 12 Years and its weakness. In Hunger, in Shame, and now here, he has seized on a particular technique (I wouldn’t call it a trick, but it comes close): He’ll hold a single, static shot for a defiantly long stretch, torturing either his character, his audience’s relationship to time, or both. (He’s brilliant at suggesting how long a minute can last, though wobbly at depicting the passage of years, which matters here.) The most vivid example in this movie comes in the pivotal, already much-discussed scene in which Northup, punished by a vicious captor, dangles from a tree limb in a noose, his toes finding barely enough traction with the dirt to keep him from choking. McQueen makes you witness his suffering until you avert your gaze, but there’s no escape, because in the background, you see an equal horror: Life going on. It isn’t just the masters who ignore his agony, but the other slaves.
McQueen demands that you take in Solomon and what’s going on behind Solomon as part of a single fabric; he wants you to ask yourself if the other slaves are pretending indifference because they know that attending to Solomon could endanger them, or if they’re so numb to this level of cruelty and sadism that they can’t even see it. The shot is what makes McQueen so audacious, but it is, to my eyes, as overcalculated as it is powerful. The careful composition, the lighting, the showy bravura of his insistence on not cutting away all pull focus from the story and redirect it toward the storyteller. As unsparing as McQueen is, he’s also a Kubrickian control freak. His camera never catches anything by accident; he doesn’t leave room for surprise. And to actors, that can be fatal — especially when an actor is used as an object of suffering.
Which brings me to this year’s Best Actor race. Chiwetel Ejiofor, the star of 12 Years a Slave, has a mournful face with what some people call “camera eyes” — when he looks up or lowers his head and gazes outward, the whites beneath his retinas are slightly exposed. It’s a kind of useful shorthand, common to countless great actors, for conveying silent depths of feeling. But in this role, it’s also a kind of constraint; it suggests “dignity,” a word that has long been used to de-individualize actors of color while tossing generalized approval in their direction. As counterintuitive as it may sound, Solomon isn’t a part you can do all that much with as a performer — he is less a completely dimensionalized person than someone to whom terrible things happen, and it doesn’t help that McQueen films his non-slavery scenes, which bookend the movie, as a series of unpersuasive, stiffly composed dioramas that he never allows to be vulgarized with things like casualness or humor or spontaneity.
When Ejiofor gets anything to do other than smolder and endure — as he does in the scene in which Northup begs a white man to convey a letter to his family — he does it superbly. But McQueen also gives him a lot of “dignity” to play — stoicism, forbearance, restraint in the face of injustice. There are too many moments in which his body is treated as a graphic element (just as Michael Fassbender’s was in McQueen’s earlier movies), or in which he is made to stand for an abstractly admirable quality. (He gets some moments of defiance to play, but in a slave narrative, defiance is another kind of exceptionalism; it’s a feel-good emotion.) Ejiofor is an excellent actor with a long résumé that includes work for Steven Spielberg, Spike Lee, Alfonso Cuarón, and Ridley Scott; 12 Years a Slave is bringing him a degree of recognition that is long overdue. I mean it as no slight when I say that he’s better than this role lets him be.
Whatever my reservations, Ejiofor’s soulful, anchoring work in 12 Years a Slave is certainly strong enough to land him in the thick of the Best Actor contest, which is threatening to turn into an Olympiad of human suffering. He will likely find himself in a field that could include Robert Redford, for All Is Lost, as well as Tom Hanks as a kidnap victim in Captain Phillips, Forest Whitaker as an oppressed and impassive servant in The Butler, and Matthew McConaughey as a heterosexual homophobe who contracts AIDS in Dallas Buyers Club (which shares with 12 Years the use of a wrong-man scenario in which the protagonist’s journey precipitates an education about oppression).
In the history of Academy Awards for acting, the choices that stand up well over time do not tend to be those in which appreciation for an actor blurs with sympathy for the plight of the character.1 Since all of these performances are vital and nuanced enough to discuss on their merits, voting by which affliction Academy members feel saddest about would be a silly way to decide the prize. But if that’s the way it’s going to go, start engraving Ejiofor’s name, because being a slave when you’re a free man is worse than getting AIDS in 1986 when you’re a straight guy, which is worse than being stranded at sea and facing a watery grave when it’s really kind of your own fault, which is worse than getting your cargo ship hijacked, which is worse (or maybe not!) than serving as a butler and putting up with racism, all of which is way, way worse than merely being Bruce Dern in Nebraska. I’ll write more later about how much I would like to see two other fantastic actors, Fruitvale Station‘s Michael B. Jordan and Her‘s Joaquin Phoenix, in this mix, but right now they’re underdogs, so in the meantime let’s have a look at Ejiofor’s stiffest competitor.
Robert Redford has not been in any conversation involving the phrase “Best Actor contender” for 40 years, since he was nominated for 1973′s The Sting; at 77, he would be the oldest Best Actor winner ever.2 There is some sentiment that he deserves the trophy as a kind of gold watch for decades of meritorious service and for his status as the benevolent architect of the American indie-film boom (an achievement for which he already won an honorary Oscar). And when if not now, for a performance that combines two different flavors of virtuosity (it’s wordless and solo)?
But that kind of Academy Award is actually handed out far less frequently than cynics imagine; only one Best Actor3 and two Best Actress winners in history were over 65 when they received their prizes. And it’s not as if Redford’s work has been unjustly overlooked. As an actor, he was a helluva movie star. His signature has always been his emotional unavailability, a quality that served him beautifully when he was paired with the right character (see The Candidate or The Way We Were), or when he was put in a situation so dangerous that his expressive range of mild bemusement, vague irritation, and slight alarm seemed supercool (see Three Days of the Condor or Sneakers). But there were also far too many films in which he seemed to resist inhabiting a character at all: Whatever was going on in Out of Africa or Havana or The Natural, it looked less like acting than like indifference, the movie-star coasting of a man who, in Roger Ebert’s apt description, had “a tendency to seem overprotective of his own image” and could come off as “narcissistic.”
Redford became a star at a moment when his colleagues — De Niro, Hoffman, Pacino — were creating a new breed of dynamic, charged, transformative screen acting. If they were Roth and Bellow and Mailer, he was Updike — the cool-temperatured WASP just off to one side, never raising his voice or getting too mussed. He wasn’t runty or swarthy or “ethnic” the way they were. He didn’t have their quicksilver instincts or protean talent, either, and he wasn’t inclined to pretend that he did. Aware that he couldn’t disappear into a role or a character, he wouldn’t bother with wigs or accents or prosthetics. Instead, he often stood sheepishly apart from whomever he was playing, as if to say, “You and I both know who I am — why bother pretending anything else is going on?”
All Is Lost, the second feature by the gifted J.C. Chandor (Margin Call), deploys Redford’s defensive reluctance brilliantly by refusing to give him a character to play at all. He is referred to in the script as “Our Man”; he has almost no lines and a backstory not much more detailed than a haiku. Freed from the obligation to transform himself, to play someone else, or to connect to other actors, Redford can simply spend two hours playing the punishing physical reality of a series of tense, difficult, and demoralizing moments as we peer into his dry-eyed, stony, weather-beaten-to-a-pulp countenance, searching for any signal from his emotional interior that might seep through the cracks and crevices. Watching All Is Lost is like having a ringside seat at a fight between Mount Rushmore and God. What Redford does in the movie isn’t breakthrough acting — but it is (and this is also the case with Tom Hanks in Captain Phillips) a performance that only a movie star could give; he turns the audience’s familiarity with him into a part of the narrative. It’s a tour de force of withholding. Stranger performances have won Oscars. But not many.