Sitting in the theater watching Steve McQueen’s (“Hunger”) new film, the sexually charged “Shame”, I enjoyed it quite a bit. Outside after the screening, another reviewer asked what I thought. Seems like a straightforward enough question, but in trying to quantify my experience I froze, mouth open like a slack-jawed idiot. He took my hesitation to mean that I didn’t like “Shame”. He said he liked it a great deal, and we wandered down the escalator and out into the harsh light of day.
My response, or lack thereof, bothered me. There are many things about “Shame” that absolutely breathtaking. Michael Fassbender for one. He gives a subtle, stripped-down, absolutely brutal performance as a man falling down the rabbit hole of sexual addiction. Brandon (Fassbender) is a man who needs sex—not wants, needs—he has to have it, compulsion dictates. He hardly says anything, but you can’t take your eyes off of him. Fassbender goes from quiet and controlled, seemingly with things completely in hand, to terrifying bursts of rage that are all the more shocking in comparison to his even keeled exterior.
“Shame” is a moody, tense portrait, a snap shot of a troubled man, full of lengthy takes where McQueen lets his actors captivate you and suck you in until you realize there hasn’t been an edit for what feels like hours. The film uses sound to great ends. Early on, as Brandon traipses around his apartment naked—hell, if I looked anything like Fassbender, I’d never not be naked—he listens to a voicemail as an ominous ticking builds. It’s a timer, counting down to some catastrophe. You don’t know what yet, but that doesn’t stop the muscles on the back of your neck from tightening until they’re about to snap. The voice on the machine is Sissy (Carey Mulligan), Brandon’s sister, and you can see the immediate impact she has on her sibling, the tension that just her voice creates in him.
Sissy’s arrival in Manhattan is the catalyst of “Shame”. Before, Brandon’s life is a carefully measured series of quick sexual encounters with strangers, prostitutes, and women on the subway, and daily masturbation sessions in the men’s room stall at work. There are cracks in the veneer of his life, like his office computer catching a virus from the mass amount of porn he obsessively downloads, but his life has a flow, rhythm, and pattern. These fissures are akin to the stopwatch counting down to his impending, inescapable doom. He doesn’t even have to say a word to get some random woman into bed, though he is unable to connect in any meaningful manner, sexually or otherwise, with anyone he has actual feelings for.
Sissy is the polar opposite of her brother, visually as well as personality wise. Brandon, some vague sort of business professional, wears low-key blues and grays, while Sissy, a struggling nightclub singer, dons a bright red hat and vintage leopard print coat. Everything about him is designed to blend; everything about her is engineered to pop. While Brandon feels nothing, Sissy feels everything. She falls desperately in love at the drop of a hat, is loud, moved by momentary passions, and drives Brandon absolutely crazy with the chaos of her life. “Shame” only hints at the their shared back story, but wherever they come from, whatever they’ve endured together, they come from a dark place. Sissy is covered with an elaborate web of scars, her own doing, and is full of self-destructive tendencies, though hers are much more overt than Brandon’s.
“Shame” offers precious little in the way of answers or direction. That, coupled with loads of explicit sex—“Shame” has been tagged with an NC-17 rating—is going to turn off audiences looking for an easy, tidy package. The film is more of a meandering study of a man coming off the rails, of Brandon sinking further and further, than it is a fully fleshed out story. But it isn’t trying to be. The characters are brilliantly drawn and performed, and that is enough to carry the film. Between “Drive” and now “Shame”, Mulligan has won me over. When a towel clad Brandon pins Sissy down to a couch, she transforms from playful and giggling to frantic and terrified like someone flipped a switch. Her part is small, but her scenes are stunning and stick with you.
“Shame” is also funnier than you might expect given the overall tone and subject matter. Brandon’s bro, David (James Badge Dale), is hilarious as his lecherous, fast-talking boss. David fancies himself a smooth operator, though he fails at almost every turn—except with Sissy—while Brandon can simply lock eyes with a beautiful woman across a crowded bar and draw her to him. There is also an extended scene with an incompetent New York City waiter that, while it goes on a bit too long, provides moments of levity that keep the film from getting mired down beneath its own weight.
The more I think about “Shame”, the more affection for it grows. My initial reaction when asked about the film stemmed from some issues I have with the end. Not to give anything away, but I predicted how it was going to conclude very early. So early in fact that I spent the bulk of the film trying to figure out how McQueen and company were going to not wrap things up like they do. I figured it was apparent enough that it couldn’t go down like that. But in the grand scheme of things, that is a relatively minor concern. That’s not the point. Like I said, “Shame” is an intense portrait of a man in the throws of an addiction that he can’t control, of a spiral of self-hatred and self-abuse. Watching the precise, efficient Brandon unravel, fraying more and more before your eyes, is the real pleasure of “Shame”, and, despite a few blemishes, it is absolutely worth a look.