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The Scarlet & Black

Teddy and Lauren go to the movies (early Oscar bait edition)

To keep you up to date on all your pre-Oscar season moviegoing options, over fall break we each went to a movie that was generating some Oscar buzz: Teddy saw “The Counselor” and Lauren saw “12 Years a Slave.” Then we asked each other some questions about the movies and our reactions.

Teddy: “12 Years a Slave” has been called “the greatest feature film ever made about American slavery.” What sets it apart from other movies about slavery?

Lauren: I absolutely think it is worthy of that title. What really struck me about the movie was how it portrayed the everyday experience and cruelty of slavery. There are no heroics, no escape plots, just the honest depiction of what life was like as a slave. In this way, it was a movie that was truly about slavery as it was lived, not in an extraordinary sense.

Teddy: Talk me through your gut reaction once the movie was over: How did it make you feel? Initial thoughts?

Lauren: I came out of the theatre in a sense of shock. (SPOILER FOLLOWS!) [Protagonist] Solomon Northrup is reunited with his family at the conclusion of the film, but I felt no sense of catharsis or redemption—the film had portrayed the brutalities of his life for 12 years too well, and I had seen all the slaves that got left behind at the plantation as Northrup was freed, to feel any sense of real relief. If anything, this one man’s escape juxtaposed against the thousands of others who continued to live in this system of oppression only highlighted the injustice in a way that couldn’t be reconciled with Northrup’s “happy” ending.

Teddy: What would you say is the film’s greatest strength/weakness?

Lauren: The cinematography, hands down, is the most powerful aspect of the movie. Director Steve McQueen plays on the tropes of previous movies made about slavery by setting up images the audience recognizes, such as a slave tied to a whipping post. Then, just as the audience expects the camera to cut away from the violence, McQueen lets the camera sit, depicting the full acts of brutality. That unwillingness to look away from the reality and agony makes the film extraordinary.

Some have faulted the film as slow, but I disagree: the point of the movie is to depict the monotony and fear of everyday life, and the pace of the movie reflects that. There are no large gestures of sacrifice, hope or redemption. It takes the enormity of the experience of slavery and focuses it to the story of survival for one man, and the many more human beings who did not survive the experience.

You had a totally different movie-viewing experience with “The Counselor.” Compare [Cormac] McCarthy’s original screenplay to some of his own novels.

Teddy: In short, I applaud the attempt, yet remain disappointed by the outcome. Where his novels are notable for their lack of dialogue, profound nihilism and gorgeous descriptions that border on the sublime, “The Counselor” came across as clumsy, forced and cluttered. McCarthy ventured into typical territory with his screenplay, which centers on egocentric criminals with a knack for eccentric conversation. Granted, I respect screenplay’s immense departure from McCarthy’s regular subject matter. Nevertheless, “The Counselor” is an archetype of the “crime thriller” rather than a poetic reversal of a genre fans and critics have come to expect.

Lauren: The movie has some McCarthy veterans—how was the acting overall?

Teddy: For such a star-studded cast, the acting was woefully underwhelming. Each of the brilliant actors played their part and served their role in the narrative: nothing more, nothing less. I am hesitant to solely blame the actors, but apart from their attractiveness they were apathy-inducing. For instance, arguments have been made in favor of Cameron Diaz’s performance. Personally, I found her depiction of the sociopathic, bombastic bombshell predictable, more akin to a “mean girl’s” impression of Bardem’s Oscar-winning depiction of Chigurh. The actors certainly tried, but their efforts were in vain, and left the audience with vain characters.

Lauren: The movie has been described as pulpy, with plenty of graphic excess, both sexual and violent. Did the style of the movie enhance the story for you? Was it a cohesive exercise in plot, theme and style?

Teddy: Imagine a Tarantino script stripped of any sincerity or enthusiasm, fueled instead by lethargic nihilism. This is how I felt about the “pulp” in “The Counselor.” Excepting a notable scene that involves steel wire and a motorcyclist, the violence did little to enhance the plot, theme or style. Same goes with sexual content: the explicit sequences left nothing to the imagination, but had nothing between the lines. Perhaps the film merits a second viewing, but its violence and sex left no lasting impression and played out like clockwork: the violence as an inevitable result of a tragic chain of events, the sex as an inevitable result of attractive couples. While certainly graphic, the film lacked the momentum, clarity and passion to shape its pulp into anything significant.

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