Cast: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan
Director: Steve McQueen
Running Time: 1 hour 41 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
According to Webster’s Dictionary, the word shame is “the painful feeling arising from the consciousness of something dishonorable.” The main character in director Steve McQueen’s bracing new film may be aware of “something dishonorable” as he maintains a lifestyle ruled by an obsessive craving for sex. His name is Brandon, a successful thirty-something living in New York whose existence is predicated on habit, routine, and upholding a carefully calibrated façade. Not much is really revealed about him or what exactly he does for a living; McQueen and co-writer Abi Morgan simply get the idea across that he’s extremely good at his job and more to the point, that he has a magnetic power over women. Brandon is played by the very talented actor Michael Fassbender, who takes on a brave and uncompromising role here as a man caught in the grips of sexual addiction. Without a lot of expository information about what makes Brandon tick, Fassbender reveals complex layers of denial, rage, fastidiousness, and deep-seated torment in a part that could have devolved into theatrics. McQueen matches his star by making brilliant directorial choices throughout that reveal him to be a filmmaker of uncommon intelligence and skill. His excellent 2008 debut Hunger, which also starred Fassbender, was certainly no fluke.
There isn’t much plot in Shame. This is a film that is more interesting not for what happens, but in how it happens. Rather than following a standard three-act structure, McQueen frames Brandon’s daily life as a series of disturbing vignettes in which he has sex with prostitutes, picks up strangers in bars, watches porn, and jerks off. It’s a life controlled by an almost psychotic compulsion for achieving sexual fulfillment, even if that fulfillment contains very little lasting pleasure. He maintains an amicable pleasantness with those around him, particularly his boss (an entertainingly creepy James Badge Dale), with whom he frequents late night bars and clubs. Honestly, the idea of a well-groomed and thriving businessman hiding insidious impulses is nothing new, and there is more than a passing nod here to Christian Bale’s gutsy performance as Patrick Bateman in American Psycho. But whereas Bale was operating on a sardonic level of heightened reality, Fassbender makes Brandon’s inner torment human and undeniably sad. Though his character does terrible things and operates in a vacuum of self-inflicted vanity, there are moments where Fassbender reveals something else going on underneath the cycle of dehumanization, something more complex and heartbreaking. It’s easy to stand outside Patrick Bateman and chuckle at the character’s satirical cartoonishness, it’s quite another to find comparable human qualities in Brandon that are difficult to accept.
The movie might have been unwatchable due to its subject matter had McQueen simply exposed Brandon as a pathetic creep preying on vulnerable women, but though there’s an inherent creepiness to the character, the inclination to condemn him is offset somewhat by the fact that Fassbender is such a charismatic presence. This makes his long-held stares at attractive women on the subway and hypnotic glances at females inside crowded bars more unnerving. Additionally, the fact that the majority of these women so easily fall prey to his charms is equally troubling. The movie’s mood shifts with the sudden arrival of Brandon’s younger sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan), a damaged drifter who hopes to crash at his apartment and reconnect with him, further complicating his rigid daily routine. Mulligan has the showier role, playing a co-dependent young woman with dreams of becoming a famous singer, but her performance gives the audience a much-needed conduit for emotional release. Because Brandon is such an enigma and his actions so self-destructive, Mulligan’s raw and emotionally vulnerable turn gives the film something approaching a soul, but McQueen never allows anything to become sentimental. The odd relationship between Brandon and Sissy is hinted at but never fully explored, and the notion that something truly tragic has occurred in their past remains hovering over all of their moments together.
Shame is rated NC-17 for its graphic depiction of sex and nudity, but nothing here is sensationalized or erotic. The sexual acts depicted are mechanical, a product of Brandon’s insatiable need to feed his addiction. They have a numbing effect that signals an empty void of purely physical pleasure devoid of emotional attachment. McQueen’s methodical approach to this risky material gives the entire film the sense of watching something new and different. His ability to simply allow scenes to play out without cuts could be considered gimmicky, but here it’s often used to reveal character moments. This is most telling in a dinner date between Brandon and one of his coworkers (well played by Nicole Beharie), a woman coming off a recent separation. McQueen shoots the entire date in a single take, and in doing so allows the actors to show a wide range of emotions that just wouldn’t be possible with a more conventionally edited sequence. Equally effective is a scene where Mulligan sings a slowed down version of ‘New York, New York’ inside a nightclub. With McQueen fixing his camera in a series of long uninterrupted shots upon Fassbender and Mulligan’s face, the sequence plays out as an audacious test of patience for audiences accustomed to more traditional coverage, but in doing so creates a powerfully lasting impact. Also memorable is an audacious single-take tracking shot following Brandon as he goes for a late night jog through the streets of New York City, which many will dismiss as self-congratulatory, but in actuality it allows the audience to feel the characters restlessness in that exact moment. Had this sequence taken place earlier in the film, it would no doubt play as showy, but here McQueen uses it as a way of expressing Brandon’s urgent need for release.
Even though Shame is about a man grabbling with sexual addiction, it could have been about any sort of addiction, and is therefore more of a dissection of a particular malady than a definitive character study. Yes, Fassbender gives Brandon a vitally human quality, but he’s essentially a construct in order to show how the addiction can render one soulless and detached. The aim here is similar to Darren Arronosky’s frenetic drug-trip Requiem For A Dream, which chronicled the crippling physical, emotional, and spiritual effects of heroin, but unlike that film, McQueen doesn’t have the rush of rapid-fire editing and Clint Mansell’s hypnotic score to carry the day. Consequently, Shame probably won’t be embraced as openly as Requiem For A Dream since there is something even more unnerving and less acceptable about this sort of addiction. People don’t want to talk about it. They don’t want to believe it exists. But it does, and McQueen, Fassbender, and Mulligan stare into the void of human darkness without flinching. Shame is a great film that constitutes what can safely be termed a “one-timer”; meaning it’s a movie that can greatly be admired for its directorial skill and acting, but which is an experience so grueling that it won’t likely be revisted.