MOVIE REVIEW: Shame
SHAME-- 4 STARS
In the opening montage scene of writer-director Steve McQueen's Shame, we learn very quickly what kind of character Michael Fassbender's Brandon Sullivan is. Interspersed with repeated views of his nude morning routine, we watch Brandon riding the NYC subway to work across the aisle from a well-to-do redhead. In a brilliant scene with no words and just a ominous musical score from Harry Escott, we watch Brandon's steel-eyed stare of desire catch the attention of this beautiful fellow passenger and complete stranger. Once she sees his blue eyes, her expressions and body language go from notice to flattery to imagination to equal desire in a matter of moments. Excuse my language, but in the words of Tom Cruise from Cocktail, he was getting some "serious fuck-me eyes."
Suddenly, a corrective second thought overcomes her. She rights herself, stands to exit, and we see a diamond ring and wedding ring-adorned hand clutch the subway bar. Brandon stands behind her suggestively to exit and pursue her. Soon, he loses her in the commuting traffic at the stop. It was a missed opportunity from a different kind of predator. Brendan's cunning looks and moves are not that of a killer, but of a sexual deviant. The scene sets the tone of the movie and introduces you slowly into a dark and twisted world.
With the dreaded Hollywood "kiss of death" NC-17 rating that it fully earns and proudly wears, Shame follows a treacherous few days of a closeted Manhattan sex addict. Fassbender's Brandon is a successful young suit who's "one of the guys" with his over-eager boss, David (James Badge Dale of The Pacific). Occasionally playing wingman for David, Brandon is very much on the prowl. Away from public, his addiction to pornography, prostitutes, and many forms of sexual satisfaction consumes him. Through every form and vessel he uses, that constant satiation fuels him and, frighteningly enough, suits him. Even when he tries to date like a normal person, as he does with his workmate Marianne (Nicole Beharie), his social awkwardness shows and his vices take over.
That bleak and twisted form of a comfort zone is thrown out of whack when his little sister, Sissy (Oscar nominee Carey Mulligan, most recently seen in Drive) begins to crash at his place. A struggling, yet talented cocktail singer, Sissy has her own emotional problems of self image and self abuse that now invade Brandon's space. Brandon can't be Brandon around her and the weight of her issues begins to unravel the calculated lifestyle he leads. Throughout the movie, the camera and point-of-view rarely leaves Fassbender and we are privy to watching this clash of emotions and habits.
Shame, as you can read from the adjectives used above, is a bleak, dark, and, at many times, an uncomfortable drama. However, much like the equally dark and twisted dealings of the recent The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, those unsavory qualities fuel the intrigue and fascination in watching Shame. You won't like some of the things you see. You might not root for Brendan or Sissy, but you are engaged in their plights and want to know how deep their addictions and afflictions go. You get a contact buzz in witnessing how it all turns out.
The biggest reasons for audience intoxication are the daring performances of Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan. Carey's Sissy is a mess all her own, rival that of Brendan, yet once you watch her dourly sing "New York, New York," her character grabs you for good as well. She brings more to the table than just playing some stock little sister part.
From that opening scene on, Michael Fassbender sucks you in with his predatory, yet deeply flawed character. Physically and emotionally, he puts himself out there in every way an actor possibly could. In the many minor awards leading up to the Golden Globes and Oscars, he's currently the leader of the Best Actor race ahead of George Clooney in The Descendants and Jean Dujardin in The Artist, and it's not hard to see why. Along with Jane Eyre, X-Men: First Class, and A Dangerous Method, he's had a heck of a year and deserves the Oscar if he wins.
In the final scene of the movie (not a spoiler at all), Brendan runs into that redhead character again and the possible seduction plays out a far different way than when we saw the first time. That results from the challenges and changes that have beset Brandon since the woman last encountered him. His character has changed and our view of him has as well. We then know why the movie is named Shame. While no one can recommend a movie like this for its deplorable content and subject matter, the fascination factor will earn as much respect as it will an audience.
LESSON #1: THE MANY LEVELS OF SEX ADDICTION-- To a lot of people sex addiction is a joke (take this character from FX's The League), but it's a real problem showcased well in Shame. One person's turn-on is another person's kinkiness. One person's kink is another person's filth. One person's filth is another person's fetish. One person's fetish is another person's obsession. When you have obsession, you have addiction and a real problem, to the point of craving any form of human contact. Never before in cinema has such a character been fleshed out in such a dramatic way as here in Shame.
LESSON #2: BURDENSOME SIBLINGS-- Carey Mulligan's Sissy is an enormous emotional and financial weight on Brendan. She's always in trouble, always full of problems, and constantly in need of help. With Brendan's own problems, he doesn't have time, room, or an emotional capacity to take on Sissy's baggage. Like I said before, Brendan, twisted or not, cannot be himself around her and it freaks him out.
LESSON #3: PUTTING FORTH YOUR INTENTIONS-- If there's one thing that keeps Brendan's deviant predatory behavior away from that of a stalker or criminal, it's intentions. With his looks, mannerisms, words, and actions, he presents his intentions outwardly (sometimes to his own detriment) and plays a calculated game to gain mutual consent. His partners want him too and want to be there. With seduction such as his, consent is nary an issue.
LESSON #4: THE DEFINITION OF SHAME-- Upon Sissy's arrival, the detrimental journey and downward spiral Brendan takes begins to expose within himself just what kind of person he is. His sister may suspect it a little, but Brendan begins to see full well what he is capable of and it changes his self-concept. By no means does he throw up his hands and beg for help, but he loses a little bit of that cool swagger that he's operated so well with. Shame is what he finds and shame might just be what changes him.