Years from now, cinephiles and film fans will likely remember the stipulations that brought Steve McQueen’s Shame to regular, film-going audiences after running through film festivals like some men go through women. McQueen himself reportedly told prospective buyers two things – it had to stay uncut (thus guaranteeing that fearful NC-17 rating) and they would have to push lead actor Michael Fassbender for recognition come awards season. The film has stayed uncut, and Fassbender won’t need a back cover For Your Consideration ad for viewers to recognize that he’s turned in the most brave (and bare) performance of the year.
McQueen and Fassbender have reteamed for their second feature with Shame (following 2008’s Hunger, a similarly wrenching film that established both men as talents to watch), and the film only cements their bond and shared aesthetic – one that film fans should be eternally anxious to see more of. Fassbender plays Brandon Sullivan, a handsome Manhattanite whose seemingly normal exterior shields his true self, one driven almost entirely by his out-of-control addiction to sex. McQueen approaches his subject in an almost clinical manner – using Sean Bobbitt’s stunning cinematography to observe Brandon in his natural environment, as it were, a predator amongst prey. As the film progresses, it becomes more and more obvious (and more and more unsettling) that Brandon is not “safe” around any woman. He leers at women on the subway, gets a touch too close physically to his own kin, manhandles a perfect stranger in a bar while her boyfriend rests mere feet away. But the film is called Shame for reason, and it’s McQueen and Fassbender’s task to show Brandon’s addiction for what it is – source of deep and constant disruption and pain.
When Carey Mulligan arrives, Brandon’s equally-as-damaged sister (only known as “Sissy”) throws his life into chaotic disarray. Brandon is already hanging on by a thread, with his addiction bleeding over into his professional life (his work computer is revealed to be filled with porn, a feat made impressive by the fact that Brandon shares a glass-windowed office). Brandon makes a few attempts at normalcy, asking a beautiful co-worker out on a date before accelerating their relationship at a breakneck pace, the kind that would scare off any sensible woman. But Brandon’s seeming inability to conduct a normal relationship, paired with Sissy discovering him giving into some of his base desires, appears to finally break him. Brandon’s collapse is spectacular, wrenching, terrifying, and complete – his pursuit of pleasure finally tears away any sort of basic moral framework he may have been working under, along with any kind of personal preference for how he obtains his release.
McQueen does not offer any greater explanations for why Brandon and Sissy are the way they are beyond a third-act admission from Mulligan, who attempts to soothe Brandon by telling him, “we’re not bad people, we just come from a bad place.” We will never know the logistics of that place, but putting together small hints that populate the film – including Sissy’s desperation for affection and acceptance along with her own too-free sexuality, a mention that Brandon and Sissy’s family moved to America when he was a teen, and that we never hear anything about the rest of their family – at the very least sketch out a sense of what happened to them to make them this way.
Shame is only as good as its performances, so it’s quite a piece of luck that McQueen’s stars turn in two of the finest performances of the year. Fassbender’s on-screen magnetism allows Brandon to be both believable and sympathetic. Few actors working today could compel the women of the film into his bed, while also retaining even an ounce of audience sympathy. Brandon is a monster, and yet, he’s not, as Fassbender infuses his character with just enough regret and just enough disgust with himself to keep him feeling human and fallible, if excessively and enormously human and fallible.
Mulligan is a skilled actress, but her quick rise to fame after An Education and some of her more immediate roles (particularly Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps or even Drive, a film that I love but continue to believe she was woefully miscast in) have made it somewhat difficult for me to see that spark of what made her special (though Never Let Me Go did allow her to bring more of best work to the screen). Shame all but erases any lingering doubts about Mulligan’s talent. Just as Brandon is unnerved and unnerving, Sissy is a powder keg of bad mistakes and an even worse attitude, stripped down and laid bare in some of the most deeply emotional scenes in the film. When Sissy wails to an ex-lover over the phone, begging him to take her back, it is wrenching – but it is nothing next to her already infamous singing scene, when Sissy the lounge singer breaks out with a haunting rendition of “New York, New York.” Sissy’s spin on the material touches Brandon so deeply that he actually cries – his most unexpected response in a film made of unexpected responses.
While Shame has undoubtedly been the source of much cinematic chatter due to its basic storyline (and the nudity and sex that entails), McQueen and his cast have pulled off a much finer feat than just delivering a stirring portrait of a sex addict, they’ve actually crafted a stirring portrait of a human being. Brandon’s illness is merely an entry into his character as a whole, a facet of all of the parts that add up to one very damaged man. Putting aside the nudity (it’s there, and early), the sex (which devolves into being so unsexy as to actually encourage abstinence), and the emotional abuse that touches nearly every character (it stings), Shame is a surprisingly universal story. It is not a film about sex addiction so much as it’s a film about disconnection and obsession and need and consumption and seduction and trust – human issues for a human story.
The Upside: Searing performances, beautiful cinematography (from McQueen’s Hunger collaborator, Sean Bobbitt), and a deeply personal story add up to a film that will leave you with a pit in your stomach for days (in the most positive way possible).
The Downside: A tough subject matter will likely turn off moviegoers who would rather have an easy cinema experience.
On the Side: Someone give Carey Mulligan a role in a large-scale musical.