Steve McQueen is not the first established director to get the bug to direct a highly sexual film for adults, and he certainly won’t be the last. Sadly, most directors who have actually made bold films about sexuality ended up with sub-par movies. Verhoeven’s Showgirls is a punch-line, Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut is an interesting mess, and Cronenberg’s Crash is maybe the best example of these experiments. It wouldn’t surprise me to see Lars Von Trier do an adult film in the next few years; he’s already expressed interest in the subject. While McQueen’s Shame does a lot of things right, it stumbles just before the finish line.
Brandon (Michael Fassbender) is a normal guy. He goes to work, goes out for drinks with co-workers, goes home. But every waking moment he has is devoted to sex. Thinking about it, watching it, paying for it, sex pervades his every thought. This goes beyond the normal human desire for and fascination with sex and actually consumes his life. When his sister, Cissy (Carey Mulligan), shows up for an unannounced and open-ended visit, it puts a cramp in his style. His normal evenings of watching porn, paying for webcams, and inviting prostitutes over don’t really work with his sister sleeping on the couch. Then he gets in hot water with his boss when IT checks his work computer and finds all kinds of pornography filling his hard drive. But he can’t stop. His is a true addiction and Brandon can’t stop himself.
McQueen crafts an incredible sequence that involves Fassbender attempting to woo a regular woman, a lady in his office that he’s had his eye on. But knowing that he can’t just take her home like a girl from a bar, he does what he sees other men do – he takes her to dinner and talks to her. He’s perhaps a bit too honest during their conversation, but you can tell that he’s trying as hard as he can to be normal. But when the relationship progresses and he finally gets to the point where he can have sex with her, he can’t perform. Nothing is explicitly stated, but it seems Brandon can’t fulfill his sexual desires if there’s any kind of emotion behind the sex. In fact, after she leaves, he calls a prostitute and has no problem screwing her.
McQueen has fashioned a disturbing and devastating character study. Brandon is trapped, unable to escape his own desires and helpless to save himself. His addiction will destroy him and he knows it and he knows that he’s powerless to stop it. Fassbender’s decline into madness is looming from the beginning. Once you realize that he truly can’t control himself, it’s only a matter of time before something happens that sends him over the edge. His fall to rock bottom is presented in a non-linear way that works, showing Fassbender on the subway with a black eye and then backing up to reveal how it occurred. Brandon has lost all control and is allowing his base impulses to make his decisions. It’s harrowing and bleak and tough to stomach.
McQueen favors long takes and there are two in particular that work incredibly well. The first is an extended scene of Mulligan singing Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York.” It’s filmed in extreme close-up and Mulligan stretches the song out to an incredibly slow, methodical pace, almost as if she’s savoring every word before letting it fall from her beautiful lips. It’s an arresting scene despite the fact that it seemingly goes on forever. The second is a long tracking shot following Fassbender as he goes on a run. It highlights his solitude and only stops when he gets stopped at a red light on a street corner just down the street from Madison Square Garden. They’re both great shots that communicate wordlessly with the audience, creating a mood, a tone that’s felt more than explained.
Unfortunately, the third act is where things fall apart a bit. It’s obvious that Fassbender needs to hit bottom but the catalyst for that doesn’t seem to be enough of a spark to start a downward spiral, particularly not one as extreme as Fassbender goes on. On top of that, once Fassbender has hit bottom and is headed back home the next morning, another event occurs that would have made more sense as the catalyst event. Placed on the film’s timeline after his night of losing himself, this event is meant to be the thing that snaps him out of his addiction, that shows him that there are more important things in life, perhaps the moment he realizes that he needs help. And while it may very well work in that capacity, the event itself is simple and predictable. In a film that’s so well-shot and well-acted, this one plot point comes off as too easy and uncomplicated. It’s like finding a McDonald’s french fry under your steak at Peter Luger’s. It just feels at odds with the rest of the film and, frankly, drags it down a bit. Thankfully, the last scene is still brilliant, leaving a certain amount of ambiguity and food for thought.
Ultimately, Shame is a great film until the third act, where the issues drag it down to a good film. Fassbender throws himself into a difficult role and McQueen shows a sure hand in crafting a devastating portrait of a man consumed by his own desires. Despite the film’s flaws, it’s refreshing to see an accomplished director take on the subject of sexuality in a mature way. Make no mistake, this is a film about adult behavior made for adults, as the NC-17 rating indicates. It’s the maturity that sets it apart, there’s no snickering to be found here. There’s nothing funny about Brandon’s situation. It’s heartbreaking and it’s even more difficult to watch because some of it is relatable. Sexuality is a part of our lives that we all share and it’s rarely, if ever, treated in a respectful and intelligent way in cinema. It’s great to see a film that’s willing to tackle a difficult subject with class.
The Upside: The performances. Fassbender is fantastic as you would expect and Carey Mulligan holds her own.
The Downside: Third act issues and mediocrity prevent it from being a great film.
On the Side: Fassbender is already on board for Steve McQueen’s next film, Twelve Years a Slave. Brad Pitt has also signed on.