Directed by: Steve McQueen. This was always going to be a big one, even just on paper: Steve McQueen is probably my favourite living director (or he’s up there anyway), Fassybendy is in there, and Chiwetel Ejiofor is really amazing, and they’re all together doing the McQueen treatment on the truly monumental topic of American slavery. Already I can sense that this review will be among the least eloquent things written about this movie (and I suppose that’s par for the course in this blog). My acting-boners were all over the place for all of the acting in this movie, especially for the ones I recognized, all males (sorry!). The two main female leads Adepero Odyue (the beleagured mother Eliza) and the amazing Lupita Nyong’o (poor Patsey!), were completely incredible, and even before I get to my laundry list of male actors who I loved in this film, I’m struck by how much fucking heart there was in this movie to go around. Patsey, brought to life with incredible subtlety and quiet anguish by Nyong’o, is another contender for “central beating heart of the whole film.” And to me this is part of McQueen’s genius—the way that he spreads the pathos evenly between a few key characters, rather than slathering it all on the main protagonist and hoping he doesn’t drown beneath it (which, in most films, is exactly what happens). What McQueen allows to bloom and glow in Carey Mulligan’s character in Shame is the same kind of breathing room he gives to Eliza in the first half and Patsey in the second half of this film. Those women all take such a commanding presence in the story that, by the end of the film, to call them “supporting characters” makes it sound like you haven’t seen the fucking movie. These women really will not receive the acclaim they deserve, but I’m afraid I’m going to contribute to that negative fact in the next half of this review, because I’m completely unfamiliar with the work of Lupita and Adepero (although I hope we see more of them in the future), and because I really do have a giant man-crush on Fassybendy (obvs), and Chiwetel is starting to compete with Fassbender for my man-crush acting-respect-boner admiration.
In addition to the admirable Benedict Cumberbatch, who doesn’t hog any screen time but turns in a restrained, respectable supporting role (good for him), and a little turn from Scoot McNairy (his Boston thug accent from Killing Them Softly traded in for a surprisingly convincing eastern dandy accent), we get a lovely little appearance from Paul Giamatti, who along with Bryan Batt (the gay guy from early Mad Men) gives an admirably merciless turn as a Southern slaver. The same thing I said before about McQueen’s penchant for evenly distributing the characterization across everyone applies to the men here too. You really do get the impression that each of them has their own story that would be just as interesting as Solomon Northup’s, from the well-meaning but morally imperfect “nice” slaver to the fellow captives in the slave ship (including none other than Michael Kenneth Williams, dying after literally a minute of screen time). The world that McQueen constructs is an incredibly believable world for that simple reason—everyone has a story to tell. The only exception to this that I could think of was Paul Dano, who I was on the fence about, and whose performance here kind of tipped the fence the other way for me. I understand that he was supposed to play the bad guy, and to be fair, he was only hamming it up a touch more than Fassbender (I’d argue several touches). BUT: Fassbender’s character was far more central to the drama, he had more screentime, he had longer to develop, and I know that this could be an argument for treating Dano with kid gloves here since he had less screentime to be nuanced and he had to just go for it. But maybe at the end of the day, I just don’t think that Paul Dano is half the actor that Fassbender is, and his histrionics look cartoonish in comparison to Fassbender’s incredibly disturbing, nuanced, psychopathic onion of evil that he manages to construct for Edwin Epps. This movie just reminded me of some vague criterion I have about what I think constitutes a good actor. To put it anecdotally, just watch this movie and look for the differences between what Michael Fassbender is doing (something I’ve basically never seen before in his other roles) and what Paul Dano is doing (basically what he does in every fucking role). Fassbender is embodying a completely unique character, a believable, individual human being that doesn’t really have anything to do with the robot from Prometheus or the sex addict in Shame or Bobby Sands in Hunger or anyone else, other than looking identical to Michael Fassbender (although even on this, I’ve heard some opinion that he looks completely different in each film). Granted, his slimy grin has some significant overlap between the bad guy in Murphy’s Law, the smarmy dad in Fish Tank and the smarmy gun guy in Haywire, but an actor’s face is his face. At the risk of hypocrisy, I’ll forgive him these limitations because, the rest of the time, he is doing his utmost to try to portray a different person to whatever reasonable degree he is capable of: in a word, he’s fucking acting. And what Paul Dano is doing (what a lot of people do, not to pick on Dano, but he’s a great example for right now) is using the same vocal inflections, the same facial contortions, in short, the same fucking character, for every movie—except in this one, the Paul Dano character isn’t a priest or a gangster, he’s a slave boss. Then again, maybe this is all down to how fucking irritating I find Dano’s voice and face.
Either way, I’ve really enjoyed following what little bits of Chiwetel’s progress I’ve seen so far, from an intense supporting role in Children of Men to another great supporting role in Woody Allen’s Melinda and Melinda, and probably a lot of other things that I won’t remember until a week from now. He is a talented and handsome man and I’m glad that this movie is going to put him on the map a little bit. I mean, fuck the Oscars anyway, but my contempt for that institution is seemingly infinite, so I’ll just cautiously warn (warn who?) that if this film doesn’t get Best Film or Best Director or Best Actor or Best Supporting Actor or Best Actress, or SOMETHING, then Fuck the Oscars so Fucking Much. But it’ll probably get at least one of those.