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'Shame': What the Critics Are Saying

Shame Laptop Film Still - H 2011
Fox Searchlight Pictures

Steve McQueen's erotic drama garnered praise for star Michael Fassbender's haunting performance as a sex addict.

Fox Searchlight’s drama, Shame, was getting plenty of buzz even before it opened in theaters on Friday, December 2, due to its controversial subject matter following a sex addict in New York City and its subsequent NC-17 rating.

The film is directed by Steve McQueen who teamed up with the star of his 2008 film Hunger, Michael Fassbender. Fassbender’s performance as sex addict Brandon was praised by many critics. Carey Mulligan also stars in the film as Brandon’s sister who comes to town and disrupts his lifestyle.

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McQueen’s (who is featured in THR's director roundtable) erotic drama premiered at the Venice Film Festival, where Fassbender won the Best Actor award. Because of the highly sexual content of the film, including scenes of full frontal nudity from both Fassbender and Mulligan, the film received an NC-17 rating. Searchlight did not appeal the rating or make any cuts to secure an R-rating. Instead, it’s readying a major awards push for the film.

Overall, the critics heaped on praise for McQueen’s hypnotizing film and Fassbender’s stunning performance.

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Shame is a real walk on the wild side, a scorching look at a case of sexual addiction that’s as all-encompassing as a craving for drugs,” wrote The Hollywood Reporter’s Todd McCarthy.

McCarthy also praised Fassbender’s "brilliant, ferocious” performance. “It’s amazing that it has taken him this long to be fully recognized, as he’s got it all: Looks, authority, physicality, command of the screen, great vocal articulation, a certain chameleon quality and the ability to suggest a great deal within while maintaining outward composure, just for starters,” added McCarthy.

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“Sexually graphic enough to earn its NC-17 rating yet made with a restraint that's both unflinching and unnerving, this is a psychologically claustrophobic film that strips its characters bare literally and figuratively, leaving them, and us, nowhere to hide,” wrote Kenneth Turan of The Los Angeles Times.

“It is Mulligan and most especially Fassbender that give the film its power,” adds Turan. “The desperation, hostility and despair he conveys through the act of sex make Shame a film that is difficult to watch but even harder to turn away from.”

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“In a movie era remarkable for its reluctance to dramatize erotic intimacy, Shame merits praise for the dark energy of its sexual encounters,” wrote Time’s Richard Corliss.

“What’s really off-putting about Brandon’s trysts is their bleakness,” added Corliss. “Filmed in elegant, unrelenting long takes with very few traditional reaction shots, Shame unspools like a documentary on the rutting of feral animals.”

“How can visual pleasure communicate existential misery? It is a real and interesting challenge, and if “Shame” falls short of meeting it, the seriousness of its effort is hard to deny,” wrote A.O. Scott of The New York Times.

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“The movie, for all its displays of honesty (which is to say nudity), is also curiously coy. It presents Brandon for our titillation, our disapproval and perhaps our envy, but denies him access to our sympathy,” continued Scott.

“Fassbender's performance here is riveting, haunting. He immerses himself and makes you feel as if you're truly watching a man hell-bent on exorcising his demons through compulsive self-destruction,” wrote The AP’s Christy Lemire.

Lemire, however, did have problems with the latter part of the film, writing that Fassbender’s character’s “descent has its shocking moments but it ultimately feels tedious and self-indulgent, which turns "Shame" into a cross between American Psycho and Eyes Wide Shut. The cool precision of the film's earlier scenes gives way to melodrama and leaves you feeling pummeled. Perhaps that was the point, but it's off-putting.”