Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave is the movie for people who think they're too smart for The Butler. The story it tells, a true one, is horrifying: In 1841, Solomon Northup, a free, educated black man from Saratoga, New York, was kidnaped, sold into slavery and transported to Louisiana. His captivity lasted twelve years. To survive, he had to hide the fact that he could read and write, which prevented him from contacting not just his wife and children, but also any of his friends in the North who might have helped him.
Northup recounted his story in Twelve Years a Slave, a piercing memoir published in 1853. The title alone is austere and direct, almost painfully elegant, and that must have been the effect McQueen was going for, too. His interpretation of 12 Years a Slave is beautifully shot (by Sean Bobbitt), contrasting the all-too-visible evil of mankind with the occasional ribbon of pretty sky peeking through the Louisiana trees. The story is told with calm clarity, its pace stately and respectful in accordance with its subject matter. John Ridley's script hews closely to the language and details of Northup's book. Michael Fassbender, Paul Dano and Paul Giamatti all render their services in villainous roles, playing, respectively, a twisted slave owner, a megalomanic, murderous overseer and a sleazy slave trader. It's all so perfect, so right.
But is there any blood in its veins? 12 Years a Slave is a pristine, aesthetically tasteful movie about the horrors of slavery. Aside from a characteristically nuanced lead performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor — plus an oak-tree-tall supporting one by Benedict Cumberbatch, as well as a breath of movie-star vitality from Brad Pitt in a very small role — it's a picture that stays more than a few safe steps away from anything so dangerous as raw feeling. Even when it depicts inhuman cruelty, as it often does, it never compromises its aesthetic purity. In one scene, Fassbender's creepy plantation owner forces Ejiofor's Solomon to whip a female slave who has sneaked away to a neighboring plantation for a bar of soap. The camera moves slowly, in a partial arc the shape of a comma: It takes the measure of the grisly brutality of the scene, and of Solomon's anguish, without really breathing it in. The moment is terrible, yet it comes off as weirdly antiseptic, history made safe through art.
That's a style, a choice. Filmmakers — the best ones, at least — think and feel through images, and the artisanal remoteness of 12 Years a Slave isn't such a surprise when you consider McQueen's two previous features, Hunger, a beautifully controlled picture about Bobby Sands' hunger strike and death, and Shame, a meditation on sex addiction that's as obsessive and single-minded as a lady-killer looking for his next conquest. McQueen, who is also a video artist, has a superb sense of composition, and he always knows just how and where the light should hit. In an early scene in 12 Years a Slave, Solomon, after being deceived and drugged, wakes up in chains, locked in some dungeonlike room. Contrasted with the inky blackness around him, the billowy white shirt he's wearing practically sizzles; small parcels of light glint off his iron chains, giving off a matte, dull glow. It's an image of great visual beauty. And it looks like art direction.
There's no reason a movie dealing with an ugly subject should be ugly itself. And there is an upside to that remoteness: McQueen isn't out to punish or scold us with his filmmaking. Northup's story is anguishing, and McQueen seeks only to tell it; he knows there's no need to bludgeon us. But compared with Lee Daniels's The Butler, a movie about another angle of the African American experience, 12 Years a Slave is buffed to a dry, prestigious sheen. You could go to a European cocktail party and profess your love for it without having to apologize. Try doing that with The Butler, a messier movie with an unapologetic pop sensibility — it features a supporting turn by Oprah, after all. It's not nearly as pretty, but it's alive.
12 Years a Slave works so hard to be noble, but it doesn't have to: Ejiofor is there to do all the heavy lifting. Too often stuck playing astrophysigeologists in Roland Emmerich movies, Ejiofor brings all his gifts to bear here. His subtlety is the earth-moving kind: He could probably shift a mountain just by arching an eyebrow. Northup's book is written in the slightly formal, manicured language of a well-educated man, yet its directness is heart-stopping. "I was heart sick and discouraged," he wrote, describing his despair after suffering the first of many brutal beatings. "Thoughts of my family, of my wife and children, continually occupied my mind. When sleep overpowered me I dreamed of them — dreamed I was again in Saratoga — that I could see their faces, and hear their voices calling me. Awakening from the pleasant phantasms of sleep to the bitter realities around me, I could but groan and weep." 12 Years a Slave takes the spirit of that prose and arranges it with painstaking, distracting care for the camera. Ejiofor carries it inside him, hidden. And still, the light shines through.