It's not too soon to call 12 Years a Slave a great film—ruined, tremulously sad, surreal in its evil. It does more than join the company of TV's landmark Roots; it eclipses it for nuance and psychological depth. Meanwhile, we're taken to a nightmarish vision of the antebellum American South, a farmscape where, over the movie's multiyear saga, ingrained attitudes creep all too slowly toward nobility. To call the movie a knockout is insufficient: director Steve McQueen retains the oppressive moodiness of his Shame and Hunger (as well has his favorite actor, Michael Fassbender, playing an instantly iconic slave-owner capable of scary compartmentalization), and funnels everything into a conventional structure that delivers him to the top rank of storytellers. Too much gush? You haven't sat in this drama's thrall, heard the sobs and screams around you, and known that an archetypal classic was being born. You will.
RECOMMENDED: Full coverage of the Toronto Film Festival
While last year's Lincoln and Django Unchained took heat—unfairly—for addressing slavery in creatively oblique and irreverent ways, 12 Years a Slave is no doubt the movie complainers wanted. Adapted from Solomon Northup's unimpeachable 1853 account of his own abduction from a modest family existence in Saratoga Springs, New York, while on tour with a circus, McQueen's film delivers the fine-grain details of slave life—but it's his keen eye for the smallest gestures of self-negation that really root things in horror. Early on, we see the natty, dignified Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor, in a magnificent, fiercely controlled turn) pointing to his young son to step smartly while walking down the street; it's only a short amount of screen time before Northup himself, drugged and sold into bondage, is being instructed by another slave to keep quiet and to not reveal that he can read. (In one of the film's first unnerving moments, this new friend will later be seen happily jumping into his reclaiming master's arms at the dock, submitting to a head rub like a lost dog.)
Northrup is not so lucky (a relative term). It's best to consider McQueen's triumph—and its subtle interior agenda—as a collection of moments that reveal nervous behavior. Taught how to shuck sugar cane, the slaves quietly submit to a vicious, taunting ditty (sung by Paul Dano, one of the movie's many white devils). No one sings along. In time, Northrup is almost lynched for fighting back against this overseer, but an intervention occurs—although he's left dangling by the noose, his toes scraping the ground. For what feels like a good minute, McQueen pulls back to a distance and we see the other slaves going about their jittery business, too terrified to help him. Slavery is a condition of life in privileged Georgia, but the conditioning takes time, these scenes show ("You'll forget your children soon enough," Liza J. Bennett's ominous matriarch tells a wailing new arrival).
McQueen teases out the lunacy of it all via Ejiofor's barely veiled amazement and a radical score by Inception's tuba-blaster Hans Zimmer, who uses synthesizers and percussive clangs to connote strangeness. The journey of the movie extends to three owners, the last of whom, Epps (Fassbender), represents a vicious creature of his culture, attracted to a pretty slave who works hardest, exploiting her sex while destroying her beauty. Like all the truly mighty movies, there's a misstep or two: Brad Pitt's saintly Amish contractor is too good to be true, building a gazebo while disputing ethics with the landowner. Still, it's a mark of McQueen's complexity that he wants to include hope as a dangling, fantastical prize. It's a quibble. I've been obsessing about this movie for hours and can't quite believe it actually unspooled. Ferocious and inspired, it's a mandatory piece of historical reclamation—from a British director, no less.
Follow Joshua Rothkopf on Twitter: @joshrothkopf