Steve McQueen's clinical, beautifully composed fascination with the body is on a roll. After establishing himself as a significant presence in the art world, winning the U.K.'s Turner Prize in 1999 and making short films that signaled what would become his ongoing interest in the voluntary (and involuntary) uses of the body, his first feature, Hunger, rigorously observed the 1981 prison hunger strike of IRA member Bobby Sands. It was painfully detailed and harrowing to watch as Michael Fassbender's Sands wasted away to skin and bone, McQueen's tendency toward the long, longer, longest take burrowing into issues of morality and self-mortification.
In Shame, Fassbender returned as a compulsive urbanite wearing himself down to a state of sexual and emotional fatigue through constant hookups and masturbation. Much less successful than Hunger, it dispensed with most of the long, studious shots and presumed to preach about the toll that sex without love takes on the human soul.
And now McQueen's art-gaze extends to 19th century American slavery, or at least to one man's horrifying ordeal in the "peculiar institution." In 1841 New York freeman Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor, stoic and muted) was kidnapped and sold to a Southern plantation, then to another, where he endured a dozen years of back-shredding abuse and labor but never lost focus of his identity or his need to get back to his family in the North. After Northup's release -- a rare occurrence for any African American kidnapped and sold at the time -- he wrote a memoir, Twelve Years A Slave, and became part of the Abolitionist movement.
But through McQueen's lens, slavery isn't the point, really. Instead, slavery becomes a brutal abstraction in the service of a Cronenberg-esque body-horror film about one man's agonizing struggle for survival. That's not to say the film's not affecting; the director returns to his former love of the long take during the story's most difficult-to-watch scenes, daring you to look away from the screen as Ejiofor is pushed to the brink of death by hanging. And the other depictions of the routine humiliation and nightmarish conditions suffered by American slaves provide a fresh reminder of this country's monstrous, murderous cruelty of human beings toward other human beings a mere 150 years ago. Meanwhile, the boldest performances, from Adepero Oduye as a mother forcibly separated from her children to Lupita Nyong'o as a suicidal woman whose field work only serves to put her into sexual contact with the psychotic plantation owner (Fassbender), to a jaw-dropping cameo from Alfre Woodard as a slave mistress with a hard-smiling survivalist's core, are emotionally wrenching, overwhelming even, in ways the film otherwise tries hard to restrain itself from becoming. In the context of McQueen's ongoing work, these otherwise whole lives feel like a secondary consideration to documenting the processes by which human bodies are destroyed and identities drowned by external suffering. He's an observer -- if not cynical then at least detached.
All of which makes it hard to know, at this point in McQueen's career, if 12 Years A Slave is meant to be read as an hard, distanced history lesson taught by a British filmmaker or just one more installment in an art practice that wants to leave the tiny, hermetic art world even further behind to explore personal obsessions in the much broader context of popcorn culture. Right now it feels like a little of the former, more of the latter, and it'll only be properly read when he lets us all in on what he finds at the end of his pain-filled trip.