Directed by: Steve McQueen
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan
Running Time: 1 hr 50 mins
Release Date: December 2, 2011 (Chicago)
PLOT: A New York man (Fassbender) continues to struggle with his sex addiction while his sister (Mulligan) crashes at his swanky apartment.
WHO’S IT FOR?: Fans of Fassbender might feel little shame watching the actor walk around in the buff, but they’ll be getting much more here than an artsy peep show. The NC-17 rating is fully warranted; Shame is fully adult, but not in an immediate pornographic sense.
EXPECTATIONS: It’s not often ’round these parts that we get to see an NC-17 movie during awards season, so I was curious as to just how explicit a movie starring rising star Michael Fassbender could be. With such a cold title and a strange poster, I also wondered exactly how dirty this movie would make me feel.
Michael Fassbender as Brandon: Front and center of Shame is a tent-pole performance by an actor previously recognizable from Inglourious Basterds and last summer’s X-Men: First Class. Though he is as handsome as ever (and possibly more so, with a peacoat and scarf “GQ” magazine look), his muscular figure has been toned down, and so has voice, which trembles without any trace of the authority heard in the aforementioned roles. Shame does little to reduce the natural appearance of Fassbender, and instead plays him up like an average New York player with a lack of control of his inhibitions, and certainly one who has no problem appealing to those who will could ultimately satisfy his urges. (One wonders how this experience would be if Brandon were played by Steve Buscemi with a bad comb-over). Shame ultimately turns him into a machine, with many unpredictable functions that constantly have us watching out for him.
Carey Mulligan as Sissy: Similarly left flailing for her survival is Sissy, Brandon’s loud sister and a heart-breaking nuisance. Mulligan provides some ace moments of performance when she interacts with her on-screen brother in either loving or hateful moments. While we don’t witness her downhill spiral as much as Brandon’s, Sissy’s tragedy resonates as she gives her last shot to pull things together. Her struggle is internal, and therefore not of the exact interest to the film as Brandon’s. She creates a powerful dynamic with Fassbender, making for one of the year’s most f**ked up relationships.
TALKING: Just like some zombie movies that lack anyone saying the “Z-word,” the term “sex addict” is never said in Shame, even when someone hauls off on Brandon about his behavior. As in terms of conversations helping develop its characters, Shame is too withdrawn when it comes to explaining outer details. The film’s artistic license only goes so far before cutting itself short of being able to speak eye-level to audience members. Having Mulligan tease audiences by simply saying, “We’re not bad people, we just come from a bad place” is a movie by a sadist script.
SIGHTS: Empty spaces do more for Shame than long tracking shots, as the framing of the film speaks more strikingly than its elaborate and possibly self-servicing long takes. Watching Fassbender jog down a New York street is a commendable showcase of getting a smooth camera track, and a downtown permit. Such visuals don’t hold up to Shame’s colder moments, in which Brandon’s surroundings are used to explore him as another New Yorker who has become a product of his vice, and subsequently, his environment.
SOUNDS: The beginning of Shame ignites, especially with the help of mounting strings that add tension during scenes of pursuit, and ultimately, temptation. Mulligan puts her delicate pipes to startling use in a dreamy rendition of “New York, New York,” which is performed in full with a contemplative tempo. The song haunts Brandon, his city, and the rest of Shame with its one moment of pure love.
BEST SCENE: In the first ten minutes or so, Shame feels perfect. Especially with the dramatic strings, this movie grabs you in the beginning.
ENDING: The same “Pretty Subway Girl” encounters Brandon, and they have a second “dance” of temptation.
QUESTIONS: You can read my interview with Fassbender and director Steve McQueen here.
REWATCHABILITY: Shame is certainly not the type of movie that will have you begging for seconds, but it doesn’t want to be. I’d be curious to look at this again in the near future, considering that I’ve taken quite a few showers since first seeing it.
In this tale of sex addiction, one in which even the title has a simple brutality to it, there is no breathing room for god, therapy, or even a 12-step program. Instead, director McQueen is the lingering holy spirit of meanness, who casts judgment on his main character, Brandon, and the thousands of people around him in places like New York who seem to be infected by a modern black plague of sin.
His wallowing film toys with audiences by playing into our fascination of watching a flaming car crash in slow motion (or in Shame terms, a good looking man having lots of sex). And yet McQueen distances himself from all of this, not providing any answers for his characters or the world around them, but instead, displaying an overwhelming lack of hope in morality.
Even though Shame features a couple of graphic images borne from sex addiction, the film’s atmosphere, and ultimately, its angst towards said inhabitants and surroundings, lingers the most. While Fassbender and Mulligan are intriguing to watch, especially as captured by the film’s hit-or-miss art cinematography, Shame is just so negative. And regardless of a film’s content, shouldn’t a film leave us feeling positive about what we have just experienced? How else can one explain the strong positive reaction to a catastrophically depressing film like Melancholia?
Like Brandon, a man who has become so consumed with the negative elements of passion, McQueen the storyteller, for better and for worse, has nearly lost all sense of what positivity feels like.
FINAL SCORE: 6/10