The Films of Steve McQueen
Hunger (July 18/10)
As pretentious as it is engrossing, Hunger details the decidedly inhumane conditions within a prison designed to house dozens of Irish revolutionaries - including, among others, jittery newcomer Davey Gillen (Brian Milligan) and staunch activist Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender). Director Steve McQueen, making his debut, has infused Hunger with an eye-catching visual sensibility that proves effective at hooking the viewer's interest right from the get-go, with the movie's methodical atmosphere heightened by the naturalistic performances and overall emphasis on authentic elements. It's only as McQueen's avant-garde tendencies become more and more pronounced that Hunger loses its vice-like grip on the viewer, as the filmmaker's refusal to provide context for the various characters' exploits is inevitably exacerbated by the narrative-free bent of McQueen and Enda Walsh's screenplay. (And this is to say nothing of McQueen's ongoing penchant for holding certain shots to an almost absurd degree, with a sequence in which a man slowly sweeps a hallway undoubtedly the most egregious example of this.) There's no denying that McQueen's self-indulgent shenanigans ultimately diminish the overall effectiveness of the movie, which is a shame, really, given that the director admittedly paints a very vivid picture of an extremely specific time and place - with, consequently, Fassbender's hypnotic, downright stunning performance ranking as Hunger's only consistently compelling attribute.
There's no question that Shame marks a demonstrable leap forward for filmmaker Steve McQueen, as the movie effectively marries the director's distinctive sense of style with a narrative and a central character that are, for the most part, consistently compelling - which was certainly not the case of McQueen's striking yet middling debut, Hunger. The film, which details the exploits of a sex addict (Michael Fassbender's Brandon Sullivan) over the course of a few eventful days, unfolds at a deliberate pace that effectively complements McQueen and Abi Morgan's subdued screenplay, with the low-key, slice-of-life atmosphere heightened by Fassbender's brave (and thoroughly engrossing) work as the protagonist. The stellar nature of the actor's performance initially compensates for the narrative's demonstrable lack of forward momentum, as McQueen, not surprisingly, emphasizes tone over plot for much of the film's running time - with the only real exception to this a brief (and almost incongruously conventional) stretch detailing Brandon's short-lived relationship with a friendly coworker (Nicole Beharie's Marianne). There is, as such, little doubt that Shame primarily comes off a moody character study, with the somber vibe heightened by McQueen's often jaw-dropping visual choices (eg Brandon, in a single take, goes for a long jog through the streets of New York City) - which ultimately does cement the film's place as an admittedly uneven yet often spellbinding piece of work.
12 Years a Slave (October 16/13)
12 Years a Slave follows Chiwetel Ejiofor's Solomon Northup, a free black man living in pre-Civil War New York, as he's abducted and sold into slavery, with the movie detailing Solomon's subsequent exploits as he moves from one owner to the next - including Benedict Cumberbatch's Ford and Michael Fassbender's Epps. Filmmaker Steve McQueen, working from a script by John Ridley, does a fantastic job of immediately luring the viewer into the deliberately-paced proceedings, as 12 Years a Slave boasts an engrossing opening half hour revolving around Northup's abduction and initial induction into the slave trade - with the strength of this stretch heightened by Ejiofor's riveting, career-best turn as the central character. The film, however, segues into a stagnant midsection that's primarily focused on Northup's day-to-day activities in bondage, with Ridley's screenplay painting a vivid picture of Northup's miserable existence by stressing, over and over, the various indignities to which he's being subjected. It's just not, despite the flawless direction and performances, terribly interesting, with the only respite from the pervasively repetitive atmosphere coming in the form of several stand-out sequences and an influx of familiar faces in the supporting cast (which includes, among others, Paul Giamatti, Alfre Woodard, and Garret Dillahunt). Having said that, 12 Years a Slave improves immeasurably in its third act - with a short-lived (and riveting) appearance by Brad Pitt as a Canadian abolitionist triggering a climactic stretch that's far more involving and emotionally devastating than one might've anticipated. The end result is a meticulously made, sporadically captivating, and yet palpably overlong effort that's rarely as electrifying as its subject matter, which is a shame, really, given the movie's wealth of positive attributes and the potential of its premise.