Let me qualify this review right off the bat: Shame is not for everyone. It’s the kind of film that some people (such as myself) will quietly admire, but probably won’t admit to liking in a casual setting. Talking about this movie won’t make for a good icebreaker at any parties. This falls into the same camp as Requiem for a Dream Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant: It’s an extremely well made film with sharp direction and brilliant acting, but it leaves you wanting to scrub your brain afterwards. On those terms Shame is brilliant because it accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do.
Michael Fassbender plays Brandon, a high powered New York businessman who pulls in enough money to afford an extremely expensive apartment in Manhattan. He’s also a sex addict. At the start of the film, Brandon exists in a sort of horrible state of equilibrium. He inhabits an apartment that is as cold and impersonal as Patrick Bateman’s in American Psycho; no family photos adorn his walls and no sentimental mementos rest on his mantle. At night he stalks the city looking for casual anonymous sex, in the morning he prepares for work (ignoring the voicemails of his conquests), during the day he coasts through his job, and in the early afternoon he returns home and obsessively watches pornography. Rinse and repeat.
But the film hints that the boundaries of his meticulously compartmentalized life are already blurring. He’s apparently proficient at his job, but the first thing we learn is that hiswork computer has been confiscated by his office’s tech support because it is infested with malware; no doubt the result of his relentless workday pornography sessions. He’s already begun fantasizing about one of his co-workers.
He needs nothing more than a nudge to go into freefall, and he gets it when his damaged sister arrives in town and insists on living with him. The screenplay desperately needs that little turn of events, because otherwise this wouldn’t be a compelling character study but an endless cycle of debauchery. After his sister, played by Carey Mulligan, invades his domain, he know longer has the privacy to engage in his sexual perversions and the addictive side of his personality increasingly begins to lash out.
Shame is fascinating for writer and director Steve McQueen’s treatment of the material. Many filmmakers would be tempted to shove pop psychology into the story and wrap up Brandon’s compulsions in a tidy little gift wrapped package. McQueen resists that impulse. We learn about Brandon from his actions and from what Michael Fassbender chooses to give away with his brilliant and nuanced performance. They also resist the urge to make Brandon likable.
As Brandon, Fassbender is extremely off putting. In fact, he’s almost a soulless monster. And yet, he’s completely watchable and occasionally sympathetic. Fassbender seems to specialize in diving into nasty characters and pulling out hypnotic performances whether it’s his turn as a borderline child molesting sleaze in Fish Tank or the super villain Magneto in X-Men First Class. Fassbender is always compelling and utterly fearless. For that matter, so is director Steve McQueen.
McQueen is one of the most interesting young filmmakers around at the moment. He directed Fassbender in the equally captivating and gruesome Hunger, about the IRA hunger strikes of 1981. This movie is just as aesthetically pleasing as McQueen’s work there. Here everything is gorgeously lit and framed; he engages in long, uninterrupted takes that give the actors’ performances room to breathe and exist; and he indulges in a couple of impressive tracking shots here and there.
Most importantly, McQueen is uncompromising. He doesn’t skimp on the lurid details of Brandon’s life in a bid to make Shame more palatable to general audiences. A tragic sense of a once promising man’s wasted potential pervades the film. He’s young, he’s rich, he lives in the greatest city in the world, and he looks like Michael Fassbender. There’s no reason his life shouldn’t be fantastic. And yet, there he is, self destructing in perhaps the most humiliating way possible.
It’s no wonder that some viewers (see George Clooney in his Golden Globes acceptance speech) have spent more time talking about Michael Fassbender’s schlong than the content of the movie: It’s brutally uncomfortable. It’s much easier to make cracks about the size of Fassbender’s junk than to talk about the substance of the film. But Shame is a great movie – just one I’m kind of ashamed to admit I liked.