In several instances in the film there are close ups that linger to the point of almost uncomfortableness. One instance where a character is left hanging, feet barely touching the ground as the day goes on about him, is as harrowing and disturbing as any scene in any horror film.
The movie brings the horrors of slavery to life in a way that isn't often seen. The beatings, the cruelty, the horror of separating families have been explored many times. What often is lost is how the institution of slavery corrupted the slave owners-- and not just psychopaths like Edwin Epps, portrayed with a performance destined for a supporting Oscar nomination by Michael Fassbender. Benedict Cumberbatch appears as a more "benevolent" slave owner but his personal decency? In the end it counts for nothing against the putrid system he is part of and institution he supports. The film does a good job of showing the human degradation of slavery. The slaves lose their freedom and the owners their humanity.
It is all superbly done.
And while all the actors acquit themselves well, there is one other--one who might wind up ignored--who deserves Academy Award consideration. Lupita Nyong'o's portrayal of Patsey, a slave that is the object of the sadistic Epps' sexual obsession, is every bit as good as Ejiofor's. She is both favored and the subject of terrible abuse. This is also another subtle way this film shows how all encompassing was the evil of slavery; Patsey is a "favorite" of Epps but this makes her the subject of special abuse by Epps' wife. And, of course, being Epps' "favorite" includes rape and jealous rage. Her position dooms her and makes her even more miserable.
Director Steve McQueen, in his third feature film, creates something great and disturbing. If anything the story of slavery has been under-told in American cinema. We need movies like this that focus on those held in bondage and we need them to be based on fact and not wishful thinking. Basing this on Solomon Northup's account of his ordeal makes it all the more powerful. This is also so well written. There is never a moment where you feel it isn't real. It isn't just the dialog but the action and the non-verbal communication in the film.
Everyone should see this film.