Steve McQueen, Abi Morgan
Michael Fassbender, Lucy Walters, James Badge Dale, Carey Mulligan
Rated NC-17 for some explicit sexual content
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There have been many films about addiction. Some of them great, some of them not. The Lost Weekend is one of the finest examinations of alcohol addiciton and Requiem for a Dream is one of the great films about drug addiction. Yet, sex addiction is more frequently castigated to baudy or lewd comedies as a way to get a few laughs. Steve McQueen’s new film Shame may have finally legitimized a very real problem for some men and given it some teeth in a marketplace looking more for laughs than tears.
Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender) is a wealthy, white collar advertising executive who seems perfectly happy in his world of nightly sexual encounters and frequent exploration of online pornography videos. As the film begins, there’s a certain enviable quality about his pursuits. Here’s an attractive, successful man able to seek out, seduce and sleep with almost any woman he wants. Most straight men would dream of such a life. Yet, as the film progresses, we’re exposed to the horrifying addictive quality of Brandon’s endeavors that not only threaten his job, but his family relations and any chance at enduring happiness.
The moment his rambunctious and recently separated sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) arrives in town, his life begins to crumble. Sissy has relationship troubles and the subtle interactions and dialogue between the two suggest something rather untoward happened in the past in their sibling relationship. Part of that interaction has left her damaged, unable to form connections with her lovers and leading her frequently to her big brother for advice and comfort. Annoyed and frustrated, he goes out of his way to avoid her, especially after she allows herself to be seduced by her boss after a gorgeous rendition of “New York New York” she performs at a small nightclub.
McQueen’s style of directing is careful, planned and frequently plodding. In most movies about addiction, you expect an almost frenetic pace as the character’s life unravels. While the end of the film does a fine job applying such expectations, the film’s slow opening and development can lead to a bit of frustration in a viewer expecting something more riveting. This doesn’t prevent it from being exciting, as the slowness allows astute viewers to deduce information about Brandon, Sissy, his boss David (James Badge Dale) and other characters in the film. So, while it may be a tad lengthy in getting to its conclusion, prepared viewers (or ones who don’t mind such) won’t be as chagrined by the deliberate pace.
Fassbender has had a fantastic year. Starring in several prominent projects, including X-Men: First Class where he did far more than might have been expected in a comic book film. Here, he’s on an entirely different acting level. His performance isn’t excessively showy even in his late-film breakdown, which gives the character of Brandon Sullivan a lived-in, honest feel. You don’t necessarily agree with his actions or his methods, but there is no issue feeling sympathy for his plight. He takes stereotypical addiction elements and blends them effortlessly into a seemingly satisfied man slowly losing grip on his sanity and the life he holds dear. It’s a fierce performance for one so tender and even-handed.
And in a film like Shame, it’s not uncommon to expect the central character to stand alone among his castmates in terms of performance, but in her brief scenes, Mulligan does a superb job as the seemingly confident, but easily injured sister. Her transition from knockout singing bombshell to fractured, rejected woman is startingly but believable.
There has never been a more rich film dealing with sex addiction and as Brandon spirals out of control, we watch helplessly as he struggles to maintain sanity and only after he quenches his thirst does his mental anguish subside, but to what end? What does he care most about? Sex addiction in parallel to alcoholism and other addictions that threaten to destroy the lives of those they inhabit.
Probables: Actor (Michael Fassbender)
Potentials: Supporting Actress (Carey Mulligan) / Original Screenplay
Unlikelies: Picture, Director, Editing
December 22, 2011