Having watched director Steve McQueen’s first film Hunger earlier this week and then also knowing that I was diving headlong into his exploration of modern day sex addiction I was expecting something nasty, disgusting and all together unsexy. After all the last time we gave him 100 minutes to show us his worldview he left us alone in a feces-encrusted room to watch a man starve to death. So when I left the theatre after Shame I felt, shockingly, unscathed though totally satisfied. McQueen may not have grossed me out but his creative flourishes were stunning and his technical skills were much improved from his last go round. But more importantly he lets us inside the closed off world of one very damaged soul who relies on sex a bit more than he should but who also has a whole host of other problems on top of that.
Brandon (Michael Fassbender) is a successful Manhattanite who lives in a beautiful Chelsea apartment and seems to have it all. Early on we get to see just how easy the female sex is to this guy as he seduces a female subway rider with only his eyes and later effortlessly shows up his boss David (James Badge Dale) at a bar. Right off the bat I am having trouble feeling bad for this guy as I certainly can’t make girls squirm with desire just by looking at them and I assume my life would be a whole lot better if I could. A much more tragic film would have followed hapless David around because he also clearly is in need of female attention but is in no position to ever get any. The question is though would you recognize this film as being about sex addiction without knowing that going in. There are red flags all over this guy; he steps in to the bathroom at work to relieve himself and his appetite for hookers is a bit too large. Probably most damning is when his computer is worked on and his boss calls him out for having a “filthy” hard drive (“…anal, double anal…”) which for most of us, I assume, would be rock bottom. Having parents or girlfriends discover your stash is one thing but having your employer know what gets you going would be a tough one to come back from.
Complicating issues for him is the surprise arrival of his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) who arrives out of the clear blue sky and begins taking up space in his apartment and his life. Mulligan has done a stellar job of living up to the hype since her star making turn in An Education and again here turns in a convincing and fascinating performance. Sissy is your typical scarred wild child whose pain shows through in her neediness. Rather than provide comfort for one another these two instead combust in ugly, sometimes comical, ways. It’s hard not to judge the parenting job that was done on these two after spending a few hours with the finished products. Both slip further and further away from mental health and while I found Sissy’s fall more believable both storylines are gripping and painful to watch. In one of the film’s stronger scenes Brandon takes his newest conquest, an interested co-worker played by Nicole Beharie, back to his room for one of the most realistic sex scenes I’ve ever seen. Without any music to lead us McQueen let’s us watch as they progress through the awkward steps of first time love making until it all flames out and Brandon has a meltdown.
Fassbender and Mulligan both turn in superbly understated performances but the real star of the show remains McQueen throughout. He has clearly found a way to meld his artistic background with the longer form medium he is now working in. Watch the scene where Sissy sings “New York, New York” in extreme closeup or the one where Brandon is captured in a long tracking shot jogging west across Manhattan; there is no reason for either of those scenes to exist and yet McQueen is smart enough to recognize how much texture they add. The fact that I simply can’t feel for Brandon may be a failure on his part but it may also just be me (I’ve been known to watch Intervention and root for death). But ultimately Shame is a searing, provocative portrait that captures the loneliness than can arise even when you are surrounded by millions of people and what we humans do to combat it.
Director: Steve McQueen Notable Cast: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, Nicole Beharie, James Badge Dale Writer(s): Abi Morgan & Steve McQueen