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Shame (2011)

January 17, 2012


written by: Steve McQueen and Abi Morgan

produced by: Iain Canning and Emile Sherman

directed by: Steve McQueen

rating: NC-17 (for some explicit sexual content) 

runtime: 101 min.

U.S. release date: December 2, 2011


“Leaving Las Vegas” followed the downward spiral of an alcoholic,“Requiem for a Dream” took a raw look at different forms of addiction, and now, British director Steve McQueen takes an intense look at sex addiction. “Shame” is an unflinching portrait of a topic that is too often overlooked or dismissed altogether. It also reunites McQueen with actor Michael Fassbender, who worked together on his equally harrowing 2008 film debut “Hunger” that focused on Irish protester Bobby Sands. Just like that tremendous film, McQueen exhibits a confident style and inspired approach, appropriately earning an NC-17 rating with its raw and ravaging depiction of a man incapable of love and intimacy in his life. “Shame” is a challenge to watch, yet due to the courageously bold acting on display and its seriousness, it’s a film that’s impossible to look away from.

In an early scene, we are introduced to Brandon (Michael Fassbender) as he silently stares at the woman sitting across from him in a New York City subway train. It doesn’t take us long to comprehend where his mind is going, what game he’s playing at as she uncomfortably acknowledges his gaze, and the awkwardness of it all. There’s nothing sexy or alluring about this predatory-like flirtation. McQueen intercuts scenes of Brandon’s daily routine, which appear to be random moments in between sex, as a haunting ticking-bomb score by Harry Escot patiently builds. It doesn’t take us long to know who this handsome yet disturbing man is.



Brandon lives in an immaculate Manhattan apartment, dresses nicely in greys and blacks, and is able to exude a cool and calm demeanor. He’s almost robotic as he glides through the day, eyeing the woman around him in surveillance mode. Because of McQueen’s long takes, we can tell he’s more of a predator, seeing the opposite sex as mere objects to feed his insatiable desires, yet talking to them is something close to a repulsion. That’s why he can find a safe outlet by calling on escort ladies or frequenting seedy clubs. No questions asked and no explanation needed.

Like a closet alcoholic, he somehow manages to hold down a job as a businessman, looking like every other together thirtysomething yuppie. He never appears to be doing much work though, which is all the same since his mind is always elsewhere. He feeds his workday impulses by leaving early for afternoon delights or masturbating in the bathroom, but his work life soon becomes threatened when his computer is confiscated. If he has as much porn on it as he does his laptop at home, then you can see why he’s having a hard time maintaining corporate composure.

Brandon’s lifestyle and habitual routine is soon compromised when his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan) unexpectedly appears at his apartment – actually, we meet her as he does – naked in his shower. It appears these two have no qualms about seeing each other naked, and that may be the first of many indicators that what they have is not the most common sibling relationship. She’s an unsuccessful jazz singer that does her best to hide immense sadness behind her weary face, something else she’s unsuccessful at. Sissy needs a place to crash “for a few days” while working a gig in the city, and as frustrating as it is taking in his needy sister – how is he to refuse her?



Needless to say, the next couple days don’t turn out so well for Brandon, with his world being interrupted and essentially upended. Much of this can be seen in their interaction, but especially in a captivating scene at a jazz lounge where Sissy performs. Brandon attends along with his boss (James Badge Dale), a married yet womanizing peer (proving that he has no male moral barometer in his life) who finds Sissy alluring. Maybe it’s her haunting rendition of “New York, New York” that serves as a siren call for him, but to Brandon and us, we know better. The soul-bearing song causes Brandon to tear up and we get an idea why. It could be because he knows her just as he does himself. We don’t need to know all the details of their past, but it becomes clear that they are both equally damaged.

This isn’t a film that offers any resolution or redemption – easy or difficult – for the characters in it. It’s appropriately titled for a reason, as the shame and loneliness Brandon and Sissy convey has been subconsciously cultivated for years, coming from a painful place that is now fed by destructive behavior. Their relationship is uncomfortable and frightening. There’s no real side to take as we witness their nasty and brutal fights, although we feel for both of them, in some ways, we can also relate to what they are going through. The more Sissy demands of him, the more Brandon lashes out and pushes her away, retreating into the demoralizing abyss he’s created, immune to the crucial role he plays in her life.

McQueen and co-writer Abi Morgan don’t provide any in-depth character study here, because what is laid bare before us is obvious. Obviously much of that is due to career performances by Fassbender and Mulligan, who both deliver such a wide range of emotion here, carrying so much weight in their eyes alone. But McQueen’s serious approach and directorial decisions are integral in allowing a place for these actors to expose themselves, both physically and emotionally. There’s nothing funny or joyful about sex here, there’s no room for that. This is an observance of the terrifying consequences of the struggle with this man’s impulses and how empty his choices of gratification are.

“Shame” is a heavy, powerful, and fascinating film, created by a masterful director. It is one of a handful of recent films that I cannot get out of my mind, nor would I want to.  It serves as an important reminder of not only how serious sexual addiction is, but also how integral we are to those closest to us, those who truly know us.




RATING: ****



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