Michael Fassbender received his first Oscar nomination for portraying Edwin Epps in 12 Years a Slave.
Plantation owners tend to be portrayed a certain way usually as the southern gentleman who wishes to be charming but is truly a brute, that is the way Leonardo DiCaprio played such a man in Django Unchained for example. Micheal Fassbender takes a completely different route in his portrayal of Edwin Epps who is anything but charming. Epps, in terms of the writing, is not an extremely complicated man. It is very easy to see how he could have easily been portrayed as an one note brute who just goes from one terrible act to another. Fassbender avoids such a path in his depiction of Epps. Fassbender attempts to find a little more to the man when he has a chance, but as well gives a very interesting portrayal of the man's actions throughout the film.
As is usually the case for Fassbender, this is a very physical performance, and Fassbender does a great deal to create Epps through his movements. Fassbender doesn't make Epps a gentleman, but instead often presents him to be man-child. This is especially well shown in the way he interacts with the slaves from moment to moment. Fassbender never looks at them really in the eyes nor does he position himself in a man to man fashion. Fassbender instead always plays it as Epps is constantly looking down them as if they were animals rather than people. Fassbender goes even further with this point in the way he speaks, and will be even strangely casual, like when he leads on one slaves head. Fassbender shows that Epps does not just say they are his property, he believes it.
One of the qualities behind the man that Fassbender suggests is that his slaves have made him a truly idle man. Fassbender is pretty brilliant in how he shows Epps to be just one lazy man. Fassbender often has him lying around watching everyone else do the work, there is often a sense of malaise in the man. Fassbender rightly is not always the barking monster as working with the slaves is a day to day life style for him, to always be a villain would just be too much effort. Fassbender realizes the results of a man with too much power over others by portraying how the man himself has been formed. The one scene Fassbender plays as Epps absolutely invested is the cotton counting, which makes perfect sense as Epps definitely cares about his money.
There is of course Epps's relationship with his slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o) who he constantly praises, rapes, and even states that he prefers her over his wife (Sarah Paulson). Fassbender again derives the complexities of Epps's treatment of her. Fassbender portrays it in the cotton counting as almost a man priding over his best horse. When he rapes her though Fassbender does not just show it to be lust, although there is plenty of that to go around, there is a conflict in him. Fassbender gives a sense that Epps loves her, but fights within himself as he does completely see slaves as his property. Fassbender makes sense of his disjointed behavior as he is man who fights within himself as he can't quite comprehend exactly how to handle his situation.
Now past all that, the part he is most there to fulfill is to be the personification of the brutality of slavery. Fassbender is brilliant here because he actually shows the day to day of the everyday slaver. Epps dishes out whippings on a daily bases, and Fassbender shows it as just business as usual. Fassbender makes the daily routine in the way changes from scene to scene in a way one would expect from a man who really does not know what to do with himself, and in all truth is very immature. Fassbender, through this unpredictability, makes the threat of Epps all the greater. Fassbender is terrific in his drunken moments as he bluntly makes Epps a bad drunk. Fassbender becomes a slob who basically trips on himself, but a slob to be feared as might kill in such a daze.
There is one particular chilling moment where he interrogates Solomon. Fassbender plays Epps as a calm and controlled here, as the situation does technically involve money again. Fassbender builds the tension well by keeping Epps again so very casual in his style as he talks to Solomon in almost a slightly warm fashion, yet oh so well conveying that murderous hint in the man. This is very different from his inebriated scenes but Fassbender connects the pieces properly and makes every behavior natural to his Epps. This includes even one brief moment where Epps is about to whip Patsey. Fassbender is incredible in just one moment expressing that conflict in the man. It is a striking moment as Fassbender does give Epps the tiniest hint of humanity. Fassbender gives it a real power though by bringing such an intensity as Epps must force himself to believe his philosophy to get over his moment of hesitation.
Michael Fassbender's work here is being taken for granted I think. Edwin Epps technically just needed to be a vicious character who just acts vicious for awhile until he exits the film. Fassbender certainly does that with a great ferocity as he does not hold back making it to the point of Epps's inherited mentality. Fassbender though goes further with his performance though. Fassbender depicts Epps as an evil man, and there is no question about that, but he actually in part alludes to where some of this comes from within him. His Epps is not just brutal because he's a bad man, although I must stress again that is definitely true, but he is a bad man who's behavior comes in part from environment that has taught him and turned him a certain way. Fassbender's performance is tremendous as he realizes the slave owner for all that he is, and turn makes this great film all the stronger.