Vomit inducing cruelty is 12 Years a Slave’s hallmark, much as the same with Spielberg’s grueling Schindler’s List. The films are comparable for the repugnant obliviousness shared by their torturers, 12 Years less horrifying if only for its quantifiable body count.
Slavery is uncomfortable cinema – it should be. Often, there is a shared naivety toward this historical backdrop. Serious recreations are often softened by rubber banding Django Unchained’s exploitation or the kookiness of Blazing Saddles.
No comfort exists in 12 Years as it lashes slaves until their muscles and bone structure is exposed. Cinematically, director Steve McQueen recounts Solomon Northup’s battles after his freedom decomposed through the hands of untrustworthy traders in 1841. Scenes are often graced with a gross warmth, a depiction of sweltering heat as often as it is visual representation of misguided religious purity from plantation owners lacking moral tethers.
Sold from owner to owner, Northrup’s (Chiwetel Ejiofor) first-person account exposes a level of anxiety generated from Southern lands devoid of safe havens. Around him, men are hanged for menial transgressions. Women are helplessly raped at nightfall. 12 Years is framed as a recollection, picking critical junction points of Northrup’s survival and creating a man determined for escape.
Secondary characters jump into John Ridley’s screenplay adaptation with jarring suddenness, tent poles for passages of time. Introductions are brisk with rapid grounding as to their investment in Northrup’s life. These dozen years are crafted in two hours, assisted by concentrated editing and Ridley’s craftsmanship to adapt historical materials into Hollywood drama, following up his work on 2012’s Red Tails.
Despite narrative urgency, scenarios are forcibly prolonged to further exhibit unparallelled hatred. Northrup was strung up by his neck in a failed hanging for a full day as others watch his struggle to breathe, his toes enough to relieve pressure when they touched ground. Onlookers create 12 Years’ gruesome lack of humanity.
Cinema’s power is distributed through these scenes, a visual medium depicting witnessed/experienced visual events which cannot be conveyed by words. Seeing (and undoubtedly hearing) a whip tear through skin brings about an instinctive mental repulse. Knowing their reality, presented here without fantasy or perceived embellishment, layers 12 Years with admirable distinctions worthy of award season.
Despite a lack of density displayed at night, 12 Years a Slave is delivered to Blu-ray with otherwise impeccable video capabilities. Fox’s AVC encode is unblemished as it clears a grain structure in order to present the fidelity carried behind it. Compression work on this film-based source is worthy of this Oscar winners frame, dazzling with its purity. Cinematography splurges on intense close-ups, gifted with a natural sharpness and facial texture.
Plantation exteriors carry over with trees and other plants resolved within an often deep frame. Sunlight’s effect is created in post with a push toward orange, if impinging little on other primaries. Greens are especially lush, and flesh tones suffer no ill adjustment. Early rounds of universally digital teal is subsided as 12 Years moves on.
Some marginal specs are visible on the print itself; few will catch any of them in standard viewings. Those are meager signs of miniscule imperfections on this appealingly high resolution source, captured without dated tampering techniques.
12 Years chisels a Blu-ray landscape spinning away to near perfectionism, as if the content would warrant demonstration material. Outside of drooping black levels – especially problematic in the first half – Fox’s disc is difficult to critique on a technical level. Craftsmanship is pulled from Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography, fiercely replicated to the format’s peak.
Sound design continues the narrative first-person hook, placing Northup at center as audio surrounds him. Ambiance is heightened to extend scenery off camera and slave songs fill available channels. Northrup’s vocals are centered where necessary. It feels personal, built around this singular character with caution as to not break the illusion. The distressingly harsh whip cracks carry an unfortunate clarity.
Hans Zimmer’s often guttural, morose, and sometimes distractingly modern score rushes into the low-end for a thundering effect. Vibrations are secured purely from the music.
Two short featurettes, one with cast/crew profiles (eight minutes) and another on Hans Zimmer’s score (four minutes), prop up the key bonus. A Historical Portrait brushes past 40-minutes in two parts, utilizing typical cast and crew interviews to frame the production. Better is Ejiofor’s reading selections of Northrup’s biography. Haunting material.
Click on the images below for full resolution screen captures taken directly from the Blu-ray. Images have not been altered in any way during the process.