Review | "Shame"

It's interesting that Steve McQueen's Shame opens with perhaps the sexiest single scene of the year, only to devolve to represent everything that is opposite of erotic. Michael Fassbender's Brandon, a successful businessman, sits on a subway, looking like any other New Yorker on his way home from work. He catches the eye of a lovely red headed woman across the aisle, and proceeds to engage in a seductive dance of sensuous glances, their eyes playing over each other, her shifting indicating her increased arousal. It's an undeniably passionate scene, but Harry Escott's haunting score driving underneath clues us in that something isn't quite right here. This is not a beautiful connection with a random stranger, there is a darkness here that we cannot yet detect. The woman stands up, she is wearing a wedding band. Brandon pursues her anyway.

For a film that is primarily about sex, Shame is remarkably un-sexy. And that is not without reason. Brandon is  a sex addict, a man whose life is filled with sex but devoid of intimacy, who pursues one night stand after one night stand in search of anonymous, loveless sex.

Michael Fassbender as Brandon on the set of SHAME. Photo by Abbot Genser.
Brandon's life of debauchery is interrupted, however, when his sister, Sissy, (Carey Mulligan), unexpectedly arrives at his door (or his shower, in this case). And while her arrival disrupts Brandon's carefully hidden double life, it also dregs up painful memories. McQueen only ever gives us small glimpses into their past, but he never needs to for us to get the point. Fassbender and Mulligan's performances speak volumes, most notably in one key scene that is possibly the single best scene in any film this year (save for the creation of the universe sequence in The Tree of Life, but that's in a league of its own), as Sissy sings a pained rendition of "New York, New York" in a bar as her brother looks on. The intensity of their wordless performances is remarkable, suggesting a lifetime of pain whose source we can only guess.

Those memories, and her presence, as well as a close call at work, lead Brandon to try to overcome his addiction. He throws away his extensive collection of pornography, even throws away his laptop computer to avoid temptation, and tries to go on a real date for the first time in years. But his attempts at reformation only go so far before the dark call of the past beckons him once more, and Brandon embarks on a journey even more degrading and dehumanizing than ever before. This time, though, the stakes are much higher, as his path of self-destruction threatens to not only bring him down, but the only person in the world that he truly loves.

Carey Mulligan as Sissy on the set of SHAME. Photo by Abbot Genser.
McQueen, who bust onto the scene in 2008 with his remarkable debut feature, Hunger, has a keen insight into human behavior, especially of a self-destructive nature. In Hunger he explored the motives behind a hunger strike in Ireland, and we watched as Michael Fassbender painfully wasted away in one of the most stunning performances ever to go un-nominated for an Oscar. Here, Fassbender follows a similar path, but unlike in Hunger, it is almost involuntary. Brandon cannot help himself. He can't even perform with a woman in an intimate situation. He craves anonymity and depravity, and is completely incapable of forming normal human relationships, even with his own family. The roots aren't so much an issue here as the results, and McQueen wisely avoids psychoanalyzing his characters. Rather than saddle his characters with easy, pop psychology explanations for their behaviors, he simply follows their journey to the bitter end, letting the wounded expressions on their faces tell a story that words never could.

Brandon's sex addiction becomes self-destruction on a Shakespearean scale, but McQueen always plays it close to the chest. For all its inherent drama, Shame is a remarkably restrained film, atmospheric and often chilling. McQueen illustrates with a whisper rather than a shout, with faces rather than with dialogue. Fassbender and Mulligan are both stunning. Mulligan has an astonishing ability to communicate a lifetime's worth of pain for someone so young, and Fassbender, already having a terrific year, has never been better. Fox Searchlight's decision to release the film with an audience-limiting NC-17 rating has wisely allowed McQueen's powerful vision to remain intact. It isn't always an easy film to watch, but it is consistently engaging and even hypnotic. McQueen finds broken humanity amidst  the depths of despair, and emerges with an exceptional film whose effects are hard to shake.

GRADE - ★★★½ (out of four)

SHAME | Directed by Steve McQueen | Stars Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale | Rated NC-17 for some explicit sexual content | Opens Friday, December 2, in select cities.


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