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Underrated Classic: No Down Payment (1957)

Suppressive Suburbia: Review of No Down Payment 1957

Courtesy of deathmetalverses.blog.bg

Courtesy of deathmetalverses.blog.bg

By Adam Tawfik

In 1945, most Americans felt that happy days were here again. After nearly twenty years of dire economic hardship and four years of a psychologically and physically catastrophic war, Americans were eager to celebrate. They finally had the finances to live large. As the economy exploded and emphasis on mass consumption increased, a newly created large middle-class moved out into the spacious suburbs where they could have more property and goods than ever before.

Theoretically these new communities perfectly embodied democratic principles. As historian Lizabeth Cohen explains, “As Americans lived better and on a more equal footing with their neighbors, it was expected the dream of a more egalitarian America would finally be achieved.” That vision did not really pan out; instead, many new sociological problems emerged.

Although the majority of the popular culture (particularly TV sitcoms) at the time celebrated (or at least didn’t question) suburban living, there were a sizable number of films that showed the darker side of this supposed paradise. While it hasn’t received a fraction of the attention of films like Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Bigger Than Life (1956), or The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit (1956), No Down Payment, a 1957 Twentieth-Century-Fox film, provided one of the sharpest and most critical treatises on the new living model, tackling a myriad of social issues through the trials and tribulations of four suburban families.

Courtesy of jeffreyhunter.net

Courtesy of jeffreyhunter.net

Everything starts off auspiciously. Newlyweds David (Jeffrey Hunter), an up-and-coming engineer, and his pretty wife Jean (Patricia Owens) venture out of the city to the countryside where they pass by a succession of advertisements for suburban developments, all promising a better, more plentiful lifestyle. They settle on Sunrise Hills whose slogan is “the happy ending to your house hunting.”

In public, neighbors Betty (Barbara Rush) and Herm (Pat Hingle), Isabelle (Sheree North) and Jerry (Tony Randall), and Leola (Joanne Woodward) and Troy (Cameron Mitchell) gush about Sunrise Hills, almost to the point of obsession. Behind closed doors, the couples reveal feelings of despair, deflation, and entrapment in their environment. Sunrise Hills (and suburbia) is neither happy nor the end to these characters’ house hunting, as no one’s ambitions are sufficiently fulfilled and all of them are already living well beyond their means. These same sentiments extend to the marriages as well, although levels of unhappiness and dysfunction vary.

As the plot progresses, the characters’ actions reveal that Sunrise Hills is more elitist and racist than its down-to-earth façade of the neighborhood barbecue parties leads one to believe. Troy and Leola, two uneducated Tennessee country folks, feel maligned by the other residents.  Leola sequesters herself in her home while Troy, a decorated GI, aggressively manifests his resentment towards the college educated David and Jean.

Courtesy of anotheroldmovieblog.blogspot.com

Courtesy of anotheroldmovieblog.blogspot.com

Meanwhile Herm, a kindly and unpretentious general-appliance store owner, genuinely wants to help his employee Ito (Aki Aleong), a hard-working Japanese family man (who is virtually identical to the average suburbanite in every regard except race), move into Sunrise Hills, but caves to the protestations of the supposedly religious Betty, who fears the objections the neighbors will raise and the potential loss of their property value. She later sees the errors of her ways and prods Herm to do the right thing in her characteristically bullying manner.

Wheeler Winston Dixon, one of the few scholars to give Payment critical attention- praising it as “one of the most compelling dystopian visions of the 1950s” – argues that Payment through its “noirish black and white lighting, brutal mise-en-scene,” single-mindedly materialistic characters, and the frantic paranoia of keeping up appearances, fits into the parameters of film noir. Certainly this valid argument can be substantiated by previous works of two of the film’s key personnel: screenwriter Philip Yordan (alias Ben Maddow) penned The Asphalt Jungle (1950), one of the darkest, most unrelenting film noirs and cinematographer Joseph LaShelle, who won an Oscar® for photographing the stylistic classic Laura (1944).

Courtesy of anotheroldmovieblog.blogspot.com

Courtesy of anotheroldmovieblog.blogspot.com

An equally compelling case can be made for examining the film in terms of “American kitchen sink realism,” with its ominously sparse uniformly charmless houses, and its long drawn-out scenes where a few characters take center stage to reveal their angsts and desires. LaShelle was also the cinematographer for Marty (1955), arguably the most critically acclaimed and financially profitable film of this type. In Payment, his claustrophobic camera work counteracts the typical glossiness of the Cinemascope widescreen process. LaShelle’s juxtaposition of tight close-ups and intensely dark shadows in the rape scene is one of the most innovative means of dodging the censors, whilst retaining the gravity and psychologically harrowing implications of this heinous act.

Upon its initial release, Payment generally received commendable but not enthusiastic notices. The New York Times reviewer scoffed that, “Despite the producers’ frank and forthright approach, a viewer is left with the feeling that these harried folks do not represent the average, that their stories are only partially told and that undue emphasis is placed on unpleasant aspects of their lives,” thereby reducing the material to melodrama.

Courtesy of filmnoirphotos.blogspot.com

Courtesy of filmnoirphotos.blogspot.com

The ensemble cast, under the direction of Martin Ritt, a former actor and teacher at the prestigious New York-based Actors School (while he was unfairly blacklisted during the Communist witch hunt of the 1940s and 50s), justifiably received rave reviews. Joanne Woodward got best-in-show notices, although these were overshadowed by the accolades of her tour-de-force headlining role in another controversial film The Three Faces of Eve released one month before Payment. Martin Ritt biographer Gabriel Miller conjectured that this was due to Woodward’s training at the Actors Studio, making her the most compatible cast member with Ritt’s methods.

While Woodward’s combination of childlike vulnerability and wild sexuality is sublime, the other actors provide equally vivid performances. Sheree North, who was wrongly stigmatized as a 50s cheesecake bombshell a la Marilyn Monroe in spite of excelling in a variety of character parts for over thirty years, excels in her first dramatic assignment. Sporting a bob of mousy brown hair, North’s fawn-eyed expressions, whispery voice and hunched shoulders convey the pent-up repression and helplessness of Isabel.

Courtesy of anotheroldmovieblog.blogspot.com

Courtesy of anotheroldmovieblog.blogspot.com

Barbara Rush, another highly underrated actress who was mostly used as eye candy in films, strips away most of her otherworldly glamour, portraying a stern and strident Christian with abrasive gusto. Pat Hingle, a burly theatre actor who went on to become one of the more recognizable Hollywood character actors, nicely underplays the sanest character who acts as the peacekeeper of the community.

Cameron Mitchell, best known for the 1960s and 70s TV Western The High Chaparral, gives a raw and frightening performance as the angry, volatile PTSD-afflicted mechanic. Patricia Owens, a normally competent actress, delivers a stellar performance as an intelligent and sympathetic (but very sexy) woman with a slightly checkered past who is trying to establish a more respectable life.

Courtesy of premiere.fr

Courtesy of premiere.fr

The biggest surprise is Tony Randall, best known for his neurotically straight laced characterizations in the Doris Day- Rock Hudson comedies and the TV series The Odd Couple. He significantly departs from that persona, rendering a pathetic, sleazy characterization of an adulterous, alcoholic used-car salesman, constantly devising futile get-rich-quick schemes.

While only a handful of people seem to have seen Payment since its initial release, those who have regard it with nothing but the highest praise. Notable in this select group is David Bowie. In a 1967 correspondence with his first American fan, long before he became a megastar or created satirical, astute songs about America, Bowie cited Payment as “a great film, but rather depressing if it is a true reflection of The American Way Of Life.”

This section contains SPOILERS

Many critics complained about what they considered to be a “pat” ending, where three of the four couples (plus Ito and his family) cheerily depart from church. Martin Ritt expressed regrets over the film’s conclusion, citing Twentieth-Century-Fox executives’ trepidation of offending the suburban audience. They issued this following statement to the press: “Church-goers, despite the sensational aspects of the picture [it includes a rape], will find it worth while (sic) since the picture opens and closes with church-going scenes.”

Courtesy of www.postmodernjoan.com

Courtesy of www.postmodernjoan.com

Actually, the film technically doesn’t begin or end with these church-going scenes. In fact, the finale is more ambiguous and downbeat as it closes with Leola departing Sunrise Hills in a taxi, looking back in sorrow, with the camera sinisterly lingering on the misleadingly cheery Sunrise Hills sign. Even the overtly chirpy churchgoing scenes can (and should) be interpreted with skepticism. Sandwiched in-between many stark dystopian scenes, the symmetry of the church scenes creates the impression that the characters’ problems continually circulate in ebbs and flows. Everybody suppresses their true emotions to give the appearance of a happy, well-adjusted suburban family, but ultimately all their grievances will resurface again and again.

Sources:

NYT review of No Down Payment

– Wheeler Winston Dixon, Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia

-Gabriel Miller, The Life and Films of Martin Ritt

-Colin Young, “The Hollywood War of Independence,” Film Quarterly 1959

Take 5: Carla Cook

Take 5: Carla Cook

Courtesy of jmw.cz

Courtesy of jmw.cz

By Adam Tawfik

Jazz, like many art forms, experienced a renaissance in the 1990s. In the 1980s, much of jazz’s output, with prehistoric abrasive synthesizers, sounded like elevator music. In the following decade, we saw many musicians turning to a more traditional sound (and real instruments) and updating the standards with their own personality. At the tail end of the 90s, MaxJazz, an independent record label, formed and introduced the consumer to a crop of brilliant and original musicians, quickly establishing an esteemed reputation for honoring artists’ creativity.

One of its brightest discoveries was Detroit vocalist Carla Cook, whose auspicious debut album It’s All About Love, helped put MaxJazz on the map with its critical and commercial success, and even scoring a Grammy nomination (though she lost to the higher profile, but bland Diana Krall). In just three years, Cook continued her string of excellence with a duo of albums- Dem Bones (2001) and Simply Natural (2002). (In my opinion, Dem Bones is the strongest because it has more bopping and avant-garde funk, and many of the tracks feature a real groovy horn section). All three albums are available on MaxJazz’s website.

Sadly, she hasn’t recorded another album since. Although she still tours all over the world, appearances seem to be few and far between and they’re not very well-publicized. Until she returns to the recording studio, here are five tracks for your pleasure while you crave for Cook to hurry on back.

5. Solitude

Cook’s powerful pipes ably hold up with the brasstastic Brooklyn Jazz Orchestra on this Duke Ellington classic. Although she sings one bridge, her beautiful chest voice makes every moment magical.

4. The Way You Look Tonight

This romantic ballad, made famous by crooners Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, tends towards soppiness. With the help of this up-tempo arrangement, Cook’s straight-forward yet soulful phrasing keeps things fun and swinging. With solid accompaniment from drummer George Gray and pianist Cyrus Chestnut, it’s largely a duet between Cook and Daryl Hall grooving the bass. Cook’s scatting is top-notch.

3. Estaté

Cook brings her earthiness to this mid-tempo rendition of the romantic bossa nova. The other highlight is Cyrus Chesnut, collaborator on all three of her albums, playing a sensuous piano and a Fender Rhodes, (an electric piano that creates the vibraphone-esque sound).

2. Inner City Blues

Aided primarily by a funky electric piano and a vibrant set of percussions, Cook’s soulful cover of Marvin Gaye’s immortal classic stresses the desperation and anguish of black oppression in America (the lyrics are sadly just as relevant today). She provides some nice scatting throughout the track before it finishes with a fantastic drum and percussion solo.

1. The More I See You

Jazz with strings is often dicey, as they tend to either overtake the syncopated jazzy vibe or remain too much in the background. The Brazilian-based Orchestra Jazz Sinfônica, with the perfect balance of brass, woodwind, and strings, effortlessly grooves with Cook. After a soft and gentle introduction, things get popping with Cook swinging and scatting away.

The Real Christmas

By Adam Tawfik

Madtvbanner

MADtv, wrongly dismissed as “the poor man’s SNL,” was a vastly overlooked American sketch show that for the majority of its 14-year run produced innovative and irreverent content that pushed the boundaries of good taste in a funny and often thought-provoking way. Although best known for their pop culture parodies and celebrity impressions (like Phil Lamarr’s freakishly spot-on white Michael Jackson or Debra Wilson’s hilariously cracky Whitney Houston), MADtv’s real genius manifested in its character-based original content. Constructed like short films, these vignettes take their time to establish the characters and situations and letting the tension bubble until it enteris the realm of pure mayhem.

The Christmas episodes of many TV shows, even the good ones, tend to mindlessly contribute to the endless output of excruciatingly mediocre and cliché Christmas-fare. Luckily, MADtv keeps delivering the razor-sharp satire that debunks the misguided perception that Christmas is “the most wonderful time of the year.” Merry Freakin’ Christmas!

Expectations are a bitch. When it concerns Christmas presents, they’re 100 times worse (thanks retail!). One mother (Stephnie Weir), ruins Christmas Day with her eternal woe of giving her family the perfect present, while her long-suffering family (all of whom love their gifts) painstakingly try to console the inconsolable matriarch.

What do you get when you fuse Martin Scorcese’s gangster films with the claymated world of Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer? Musical numbers, power struggles, violence, and a whole lot of blood. There’s something for the entire family (except perhaps for children).

If your family is a hot mess, that won’t magically change at Christmas. The Shanks (expertly portrayed by Mo Collins and Ike Barinholtz), are a co-dependent husband and wife that endlessly yell and beat each other up; she is a raging shrew and he an unemployed loser. Caught in the middle are a well-meaning but highly senile grandfather who thinks everything is a PlayStation, their Prozac infused daughter (Stephnie Weir), and a couple of neighbors who have the bad luck to be houseguests after their home burned down.

While Christmas rarely brings sunshine and roses, it often illuminates other, less flattering parts of certain family members. A couple (Mo Collins and Michael McDonald) are awoken by their gift deprived children who are devastated that Santa forgot them. They learn the truth when their parents half-assedly pass on stuff from their bedroom. Unfortunately for the children, there are far worse skeletons to come out of the closet.

Every great piece of black humor should involve emotional harm to children. April (Stephnie Weir), a cute little girl discovers the brutal consequences of encountering Santa (Michael McDonald), who turns out to be an eccentric crazy-man with a murderous streak. For five hilarious minutes, we watch April plead for her life while Santa tries to ease her into death in a none-too-refined method.

Political correctness is a killjoy, especially at the holidays. A new employee is surprised to find that Christmas is banned in his office. Several repressed employees, tired of a “cheer of a non-specific, non-traditional, non-religious nature,” plan an ultra-underground Secret Santa, which sets off a chain-effect of cultural cacophony.

 

Review: Dallas Buyers Club (2013)

How to Make a Profit and Save Lives

Courtesy of ropeofsilicon.com

Courtesy of ropeofsilicon.com

By Adam Tawfik

Dallas Buyers Club has all of the elements for a Lifetime-esque treatment. The protagonist, Ron Woodruff (Matthew McConaughey) is a homophobic white-trash drug and sex addict, who receives a shattering HIV diagnosis giving him 30 days to live. In order to fight the odds, he must stand up to the FDA and medical establishment by smuggling and using illegal drugs.  He encounters a flamboyant transsexual Rayon (Jared Leto), who becomes his business partner, and an idealistic doctor (Jennifer Garner) who initially opposes his tactics.

Under the helm of director Jean-Marc Valleé and screenwriters Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack, Dallas resists all temptations to be pat and preachy (save for a couple of scenes, but they’re minor enough to be forgiven). Dallas instead opts for a lucid and intellectual approach to AIDS, a disease that tends to get overly politicized and emotionalized in popular discourse and films due to its characterization as a gay disease. The film widens its scope so that it’s more than about rectifying homophobia, or about homosexuality and AIDS, or simply one man fighting against the government; it illuminates all of the above.

Courtesy of showbizmonkeys.com

Courtesy of showbizmonkeys.com

The filmmakers wisely let the facts and the characters speak for themselves. The first act consists of a subtle ripple effect of Ron coming to terms with his diagnosis. Although he acts like he’s invincible on the outside, little things show us he’s frightened. As he reads articles and realizes his drug use and unprotected sex gave him AIDS he is uncharacteristically unable to participate in the orgy in his trailer. There is an almost subliminal split-second image of him looking at the calendar and a flashing of red for 30 days representing his limited life span.

Dallas also shows how AIDS victims were ostracized. First, we see in a bar scene that Ron’s friends fear that he’s infectious. When he spits on them after a fight, they freak and cleanse themselves of the evil germs. Then his community shuns him by menacingly standing over his car and not letting him come to work and shutting off his trailer with an eviction notice. This is shown with surgical precision, using concise, short scenes.

Courtesy of huffingtonpost.com

Courtesy of huffingtonpost.com

Ron puts himself in danger by illegally taking AZT and almost dies, but we understand why he takes the risk, as doctors simply gave him 30 days to live, with no hope or medical options. They are impervious to the urgency the AIDS victims are feeling. Once Ron figures out there are more effective treatments that are illegal in the US and begins importing them from other countries, he sets up a distribution center, which he calls the Dallas Buyers Club, making them available to anyone with money by monthly subscription.

The rest of the film then centers on the legal tug-of-war between the FDA and the Dallas Buyers’ Club.  There’s an excellent monologue delivered by a Supreme Court judge where he explains that the law isn’t logical or fair when ruling against Ron’s petition to continue the buyers’ club. This is still timely, considering the healthcare crisis today.

Courtesy of gazette.com

Courtesy of gazette.com

Even as Ron’s life totally changes, the film doesn’t magically transform him into a saint. He remains a character we admire more than like. He manages a true trajectory, beginning as a disgusting, rude, uncouth rube, slowly transforming his life.  He is never a part of the gay scene and stays resentful of his forced association. But from the beginning his ethical streak is evident and grows as the film progresses.  He approaches the Dallas Buyers Club as a business and he’s always a bit of a huckster, as is his partner, Rayon, whom he enlists to get more clients, particularly the flamboyantly gay ones, with whom Ron is very uncomfortable.

He never entirely gets over his homophobia. So his final scene with Rayon is touching, because the script shows that although he cares about Rayon (even though they constantly spar), he still is squeamish and is reluctant to hug him; this rings true and feels human. He manages to see each individual as a person regardless of their sexuality.

Courtesy of eonline

Courtesy of eonline

McConaughey once again proves that he’s more than a pretty boy and gets full in to his physically demanding role. There’s considerably little of his trademark roguish charm. He gives full conviction to his unsympathetic character, adding moments of humor while never losing sight of the gravity of his situation.  He undergoes a subtle yet alarming physical transformation. In early scenes he is active and physical and as his disease progresses he becomes thin and fragile, all the while maintaining a fierce emotional spirit. This is probably his best dramatic role.

Jared Leto, returning to the big screen after a five year acting hiatus, is back in excellent form.  He delivers a confident, flamboyantly gay character; he portrays the bitchy “queen” very well.  Rayon is also the first character to stand up to Ron and force him to meaningfully consider his situation. We gradually learn it’s all a façade. Rayon has a lot of insecurities. He has been beaten down by life. As he’s in final stages of the disease we see he’s not dying with dignity. He attempts to numb his pain and sorrow with cocaine, thus speeding up his death sentence. It’s made more haunting by the last image we see of him, saying “I don’t want to die” and coughing up blood.

Courtesy of apnatimepass

Courtesy of apnatimepass

[Interesting trivia: some of the wonderful supporting Dallas cast were also featured in the marvelous 12 Years a Slave. J.D. Evermore shines as the hateful, stupid and despicable best friend who becomes the ringleader in ostracizing Ron.  Deneen Tyler, with her cigarette-inflected baritone timbre, brings the right amount of sleaze, toughness, intelligence, and sensitivity to the role of the Buyer’s Club manager. ]

The sorely underrated Griffin Dunne is almost unrecognizable as a rogue hippie doctor practicing alternative medicine in Mexico, who becomes Ron’s first ally.

Courtesy of filmequals.com

Courtesy of filmequals.com

I was most pleasantly surprised by Jennifer Garner’s character and acting. The female character in male-oriented dramas usually lacks depth and is reduced to a love object. Here, Dr. Saks is a well-defined character, and has agency occupying her own storyline. She progresses from an idealistic, but very by-the-book, doctor to one who rebels against protocol for her patients’ best interests. Garner, who’s drop-dead gorgeous in a girly way, subtly plays down her looks.  She nicely shows intelligence and inner strength, and makes the transformation of initially opposing Ron to allying with his cause believable.

The film tastefully and subtly portrays the victims’ progressive decline due to the disease and the makeup and drastic weight loss wasn’t gimmicky, allowing the characters to maintain center stage.

Yves Belanger’s cinematography has an intriguing balance of impressionistic beauty, whilst maintaining the seediness of the locations, especially in the rodeo scenes. Martin Pensa and Jean-Mark Valleé’s brisk and frenetic editing sets the stage for the film’s theme of urgently racing against the clock.

Review: 12 Years a Slave (2013)

The Many Rings of Hell

Courtesy of redcarpetrefs.com

Courtesy of redcarpetrefs.com

A Review of 12 Years a Slave

By Adam Tawfik

*This review contains SPOILERS

Although the institution of slavery officially ended in 1865, its ramifications still remain with us and America hasn’t fully dealt with this national shame. When the film industry takes on this controversial subject, it is usually relegated to the background of a storyline of white characters (a la Gone with the Wind) or, if it’s a slightly liberal film, it offers a chance to glorify or vilify white people while oversimplifying the institution (a la The Help).

Throughout history, some of the more unrelentingly salient critiques of American society have been made by foreign filmmakers, e.g. Otto Preminger, Tony Kaye, Billy Wilder, and Costa-Gavras. British filmmaker Steve McQueen, who previously directed two gritty indies Hunger and Shame, presents an uncompromisingly grim portrait of slavery in his latest film 12 Years a Slave, which seems to be a very faithful adaptation of the memoir of the same name.

Courtesy of patheos.com

Courtesy of patheos.com

The story is told through the lens of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejifor), a well-respected violinist who is illegally sold into slavery after being tricked by two white “musicians” offering him a fictitious job. With Slave, McQueen proves that he can take on a larger-scale project without compromising the quality.

Chiwetel Ejifor delivers a tour-de-force performance in the leading role, subtly instilling a quiet desperation and strength, holding his ground against his many cruel white opponents. Throughout his rough journey, he subtly demonstrates how his spirit has been broken and shows how he’s been worn down. His ups and downs keep the audience on an emotional roller coaster ride. In certain ways he is a slightly unsympathetic character.

As an educated, literate free man, he feels superior to the other slaves. He doesn’t integrate with them until the funeral of a fellow slave who died from heatstroke and exhaustion on the cotton field, where he joins them in their song.

Courtesy of blackfilm.com

Courtesy of blackfilm.com

This film is a great skeleton, providing a great overview for Solomon and his trying circumstances. For the most part, this is the correct approach as it avoids the pitfalls of sentimentality or oversimplification, but there were a couple of times where I wanted a little more pulping out. One interesting storyline was that of Mistress Harriet Shaw (Alfre Woodard), a former slave who married her plantation owner.

Had we seen her in a couple of more scenes, it might have made an interesting counterpoint to the brutality and helplessness that most slaves were subjected to. I would have liked to have seen how she and her white husband interacted with one another and how she treated her own slaves. Besides, Woodard’s acerbic wit left me craving for more.

Courtesy of stewardshipreport.com

Courtesy of stewardshipreport.com

The stellar screenplay by John Ridley eschews stereotypes, giving each black and white character distinctive personalities, even down to the smallest roles: it’s not the usual binary of white people are mean and stupid and black people are pure and noble victims. Slave refuses to exclusively restrict its narrative and visual scope to Solomon’s story.  The film constantly reinforces that slavery was a collective suffering and as such, the responsibility of a whole society.

While it’s primarily an intensely and unrelentingly dark drama, there are nice fleeting moments of humor organically woven in. One such moment is Mistress Ford (Liza J. Bennett), who sees herself as a good Christian, attempting to console a newly-purchased Eliza (Adepero Oduye) by telling her that she’ll forget about being separated from her children, oblivious to the trauma Eliza is experiencing. Another takes place in a harrowing chase scene where sadistic Master Epps (Michael Fassbinder) chases Solomon, but falls in pig sty and briefly stumbles around before a brutal payoff.

This film has an abundance of well-defined female characters that are especially interesting and integral to the narrative. Eliza and Patsey are catalysts for Solomon’s growth, instrumental in inspiring change in him. Eliza refuses to get over the loss of being separated from her children, and her grief is the only thing that keeps her human and forces Solomon to confront his own resignation to his situation. Adepero Oduye, who starred in the overlooked shoestring-budgeted film Pariah in 2011, again proves that she is a stellar dramatic actress capable of great versatility.

Courtesy of thewrap.com

Courtesy of thewrap.com

Lupita Nyong’o, in her debut feature film, is a revelation as Patsey, the beautiful slave who is the object of Master Epps’ (Michael Fassbinder) lust and the wrath of his violently jealous wife (Sarah Paulson). Nyong’o demonstrates her character’s strength and tenacity while hauntingly presenting the emotional and physical toll of her arduous and hopeless existence as she pleads for Solomon to kill her.

There’s a shattering moment toward the end of the film as she watches Solomon leave that we see the beginnings of her collapse, but the rest of her story takes place off-screen, a cruel reminder that many remained in obscurity. Solomon’s main journey is to regain his will to live, not merely survive, and as he sees the atrocities of working for the Epps (particularly for Patsey), he’s willing to take more chances in order to reach that goal.

Courtesy of nydailynews.com

Courtesy of nydailynews.com

Michael Fassbinder is superlative as the craziest and most sadistic slave lord. Although he’s a wealthy plantation owner, Fassbinder renders a disgusting portrait of an alcoholic bum whose disheveled appearance and sloppy clothing makes him look ironically similar to the slaves on whom he looks down and treats with subhuman contempt. He also superbly evokes Epps’ inner turmoil of loving Patsey without seeing her as a human and this threatens his grip on reality.  

Sarah Paulson fully immerses herself into the role of Fassbinder’s equally vitriolic and screwed-up wife, stripping her character of all joy and compassion. At one point, the script seemed to establish a storyline of Mistress Epps using Solomon as her pawn and had it been expanded it could have added an interesting quadrangle to further complicate the relationship.

Courtesy of blogs.indiewire.com

Courtesy of blogs.indiewire.com

The excellent cinematography by Sean Bobbitt, some of the most expressive I’ve seen recently, has significant narrative meaning. Evocative juxtaposition of extreme long shots emphasize the larger human suffering, and claustrophobically tight medium and extreme close ups intently focus on a character, often in the midst of extreme suffering. There’s a provocative close up on Solomon’s face towards the end that lingers for many seconds as if to challenge the audience to look into his soul and see if we really know the man, even after watching his agony for two hours.

McQueen has come under fire for putting a lot of aesthetic beauty into the film. It didn’t bother me; if anything, it makes the plight of the slaves more sickening as it provides a stark contrast between the refined environment and how they’re treated like animals.

I disliked the Hans Zimmer’s anachronistic modernist violin score because it sounded like a plagiarized soundtrack from his more mainstream Hollywood work. I particularly objected to it in the pivotal third-act climactic scene where Solomon (under duress) and Epps are whipping Patsey on the tree post as it wasn’t in accord with the viscerally and psychologically taxing action.

I preferred the earthiness of the a cappella slave music; it’s been featured in many films before like Song of the South, where it feels uncomfortably racist. Here we see the context for the pain and misery, and how it was an outlet to articulate the drudgery and hopelessness, while helping to restore a sense of relief and sanity.

Courtesy of contactmusic.com

Courtesy of contactmusic.com

The film boasts a good mix of well-known actors and character actors, nobody being too showy. Benedict Cumberbatch, as Solomon’s first master, is a hypocritical Christian and a coward, quoting the Bible. He has no problem using slave labor, justifying his actions by being more humane to his slaves than most owners, though he capitulates to pressure.

Paul Dano, who has been overwrought and miscast in many roles lately, restrains himself yet shows all of his character’s vileness. Garrett Dillahunt excels in a tricky role of a drunken foreman turned indentured servant who pretends to be Solomon’s friend. Michael K. Williams plays a brave and rebellious slave with conviction.

Courtesy of collider.com

Courtesy of collider.com

When I read about the ending of how a Canadian man, played by Brad Pitt, helps rescue Solomon and reunite him with his family, I cringed, thinking it was going to an overly neat resolution with an improbably cliché-ridden happy ending. I was sure that Brad Pitt (who gives a surprisingly serviceable performance), being one of the producers, would make a big deal of his white savior role, but the film wisely downplays his contribution and keeps the focus on Solomon.

The final scene is one of grief and shellshock: there was confusion and resentment on both Solomon and his wife’s part. The epilogue dispelled the potential of hope, reminding us that while he regained his freedom he still faced oppression and injustice.

While many are predicting Slave to reap the Oscars, I suspect that it is far too intelligent and visceral to win.