Review: Shame (2011)



Steve McQueen
Steve McQueen, Abi Morgan
101 min.
Michael Fassbender, Lucy Walters, James Badge Dale, Carey Mulligan
MPAA Rating
Rated NC-17 for some explicit sexual content

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Before Shame, the idea of sex addiction was the purview of comedians and politicians. Perhaps with an eye-opening examination of the genuine addictive personality disorder, the concept can get a more even-handed concern among the public.

Brandon (Michael Fassbender) loves women…too much. When he’s not galivanting through the subway seducing married women or trafficking night clubs in the search for his next conquest, he’s at home in his spacious, meticulous apartment watching online pornography. It may seem like a normal guy-thing, but a deeper examination of his behavior suggests something more dangerous. His work computer has been infested with countless virii from the various porn sites he’s visited. His one attempt to seriously date a co-worker ends disastrously when all he wants to do is get her in bed. He cannot connect emotionally with women, which is all the more exacerbated by the sudden arrival of his suicidal sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan).

As Sissy attempts to get close to Brandon, spiraling out of control in a depressive state brought on by a recent break-up, he continuously pushes her away, angry that his sexually extravagant lifestyle must be put on hold while she’s invading his space. There are even subtle suggestions throughout their interactions that perhaps Brandon’s sexual proclivities had started at a young age and his sister may have been the victim of them; psychologically, this idea can be supported by her inerrant co-dependance. Sissy is unable to form lasting relationships with men and because Brandon has moved on and has little need for the one girl who was in his life for the longest time, Sissy seems further distraught, constantly attempting to gain his attention, which includes seducing his horny boss David (James Badge Dale).

Fassbender’s performance is one of the most thrilling of his career. He brought a surprising humanity to vindictive super villain Magneto in X-Men: First Class; made his automaton in Prometheus the most emotionally complicated character in the entire film; and conveys a sleazy, methodical determination in Haywire. Even with all of these accomplished performances under his belt, Shame is a work of mesmerizing beauty, the kind of performance that defines a gifted actor and provides an ever-heightening bar over which he must leap. As Brandon, Fassbender is cool and calculating with subtle vulnerability percolating below the surface. The intensity of his attempts to control his life while relinquishing the control of his libido leads him to all manners of sordid acts that would seem anathema to anyone who considered themselves normal. His performance is a self-destructive tour-de-force that is matched and supported ably by the outstanding Mulligan.

Mulligan is one of the most gifted actresses of her generation. Alongside the likes of Michelle Williams (with whom she’s occasionally confused), Mulligan has shown a tenacity of character in her role selection. Never allowing the potential for a large bank account to dictate what roles she takes, Mulligan has cobbled together an astounding array of performances of which many actors should be envious. As Sissy, Mulligan’s vulnerability is unquestionable. She’s wounded and needs the support of her big brother to carry on; however, the slinky side of her that has been influenced by him, leads her to her own set of risky behaviors. There is seldom a moment where her world-weary character doesn’t seem on the verge of calling it quits. Her sultry performance of “New York, New York” is a highlight of the film. She’s seductive, yet mournful.

In only his second outing as a director, Steve McQueen has displayed remarkable control over his projects. As writer and director, McQueen doesn’t compromise on the darkness he conveys through his films. Shame may have some nihilistic elements, but its bleakness is its strength. Only by exploring the extremes of a dangerous addiction can we begin to understand how destructive it can be. Before films like The Lost Weekend and The Man with the Golden Arm, addiction was handled too lightly, treated more as a frailty of the human personality than a debilitating illness. Like those aforementioned films, Shame explores the subject with tact and honest, though perhaps a bit more deep and foreboding than those classics.

Something akin to Requiem for a Dream, which took a grizzly look at drug addiction, Shame doesn’t pull its punches and avoids sentimentalism, exchanging it for raw emotion. Shame isn’t a film for the squeamish or sexually intimidated. It’s a mature film that unfortunately carries an undeserved NC-17 rating. The film may have a lot of sex and nudity, but it’s all subservient to the plot. This isn’t a movie that glorifies such behavior, quite the opposite. It’s an object lesson on the destructive nature of sex addiction and the emotional toll it weighs on addicts and those around them.

Review Written
July 17, 2012

Original Review

Note: By mistake, I re-wrote this review in July of 2012. Below is the original review written in December of 2011.

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 addiction and Requiem for a Dream is one of the great films about drug addiction. Yet, sex addiction is more frequently castigated to bawdy 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.

Oscar Prospects
Guarantees: None
Probables: Actor (Michael Fassbender)
Potentials: Supporting Actress (Carey Mulligan) / Original Screenplay
Unlikelies: Picture, Director, Editing

Review Written
December 22, 2011

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