[This is a reprint of my review from the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival. Shame opens tomorrow in limited release.]
Alcoholics are told they’ll never find love in a bottle and drug addicts are told they’ll never find happiness in a needle. But what about sex addicts whose compulsion precludes them from intimacy and love? Steve McQueen‘s Shame delves deep into the life of a sex addict and with laser-like focus examines the pain and torment that can drive such a person away from heartfelt interactions and towards self-destruction. McQueen’s inspired and confident direction coupled with a heart-breaking performance from star Michael Fassbender makes Shame far more than a PSA or a righteous condemnation. McQueen and Fassbender make Shame a devastating powerhouse.
Brandon (Fassbender) is a sex addict who has closed off his life from any emotional contact. He wakes up naked and strolls around his apartment because there’s no one to cover up for, no one to impress. He feeds his sex addiction with hookers, random pick-ups, masturbating in the restroom at work, a steady stream of porn, and hides it all under a cool, calm veneer. His tranquil downward slide is accelerated by the arrival of his ne’er-do-well sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan). Sissy is Brandon’s inverse. She’s overly emotional, feels everything deeply, and voices her need for comfort. They’re equally messed up, share the same loneliness, but while Sissy has no problem crying for help, Fassbender runs away from any intimacy, especially from his only family and the one woman he’ll never want to sleep with. As Shame unfolds, Brandon’s failed attempts to connect with other people only send him deeper into his own pain and anguish.
Coupled with his debut film Hunger, McQueen demonstrates that he may be one of the smartest directors working today. He once again takes advantage of long, uninterrupted takes that provide his actors with the room to give full, rich performances, but the direction is never stage-y. McQueen always frames his shot perfectly for maximum effect. I was taken in by the subtle power of how the frame almost always keeping Brandon to the far right of the screen. This oft-repeated shot keeps the character trapped, isolated, and unable to cross over and connect with anyone else. It’s a beautiful visual metaphor that never feels heavy-handed.
Just as he can create beautiful tracking shots and exquisite framing, McQueen also knows how to be unrelentingly harsh. There’s a horrific claustrophobia to Brandon’s world. He’s cruelly taunted every time he sees a woman that he can fuck but never love. When McQueen opens the film showing Fassbender’s full-frontal nudity or a nude shot of Mulligan or any of the film’s countless sex acts, it’s not to titillate but to drive us into Brandon’s mindset. McQueen forces us to live in a world where sex is completely joyless. Any director who can take copious amounts of sex between attractive people and make it completely unappealing without being overtly disgusting is some kind of mad genius.
The other mad genius of Shame is Fassbender. He has already given three outstanding performances this year with Jane Eyre, X-Men: First Class, and A Dangerous Method, but Shame is his best. Fassbender brings ugliness to charm, anguish to intimacy, and a devastating range of emotions that show a man who clearly can’t even remember the last time he was happy and is clinging to what remains of his corroded soul. On the surface, Brandon shouldn’t be a pitiable character. He’s handsome, wealthy, and gets to have sex with beautiful women. But through Fassbender, we feel every moment of Brandon’s torment.
Fassbender and McQueen are the major stars of Shame but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Mulligan. She has to stand as Brandon’s mirror, convey just as much suffering, and has less screen-time to do it. Mulligan rises to the occasion and her performance is even better than her acclaimed breakthrough role in An Education. Sissy is a singer and I don’t know if its Mulligan’s voice in the character’s performance of “New York, New York” but it’s a scene that will absolutely break your heart.
Shame is not an easy film. It’s not a film you “enjoy”. It puts you in a choke-hole and then forces you down further and further into the depths of one man’s pain. There’s no humor, no relief, and it’s not a film you want to watch again immediately after seeing it. But you respect every moment.