Driven by a brilliant, ferocious performance by Michael Fassbender, 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. Steve McQueen’s second feature, after his exceptional debut with Hunger in 2008, may ultimately prove too psychologically pat in confronting its subject’s problem, but its dramatic and stylistic prowess provides a cinematic jolt that is bracing to experience. This sexually raw film will stir considerable excitement among critics and serious audiences, making it an attractive proposition for an enterprising distributor in the wake of festival play in Venice, Telluride, Toronto and New York.
His visual arts background evident in the bold widescreen framing and the way its protagonist’s world is defined, McQueen wastes no time defining what drives Brandon (Fassbender), a 30ish New Yorker whose life is stripped of any unnecessary accoutrements or distractions. With music employed to grandiose, sensual effect, he compulsively masturbates, eyes prey in the subway and stealthily manages to nail the sexy girl his madly gregarious boss David (James Badge Dale) had been fancying all evening at a group outing.
Handsome as the devil, immaculately groomed and outwardly polite, Brandon is also the picture of coldness, with hard eyes and a terrible anger inside that presumably can only be calmed and held at bay through constant sexual release. He’s a cousin of American Psycho, although no killer.
Returning to his sparely decorated, personality-devoid apartment late at night, he is dismayed to find a wreck of a young woman in his bathroom. At a glance unstable, neurotic, needy and silly, Sissy (Carey Mulligan) evidently wouldn’t be here if she had anywhere else to go and Brandon cannot disguise his annoyance with her disruption of his stripped down, carefully compartmentalized world.
But, as it develops, she’s his sister. They have nothing in common except what can only be an awful shared family history, which is left to the imagination. For Brandon, it is disturbing even to be reminded of this, let alone be forced to share in Sissy’s current distress. All the same, she pulls it together to perform in a local boite, and Mulligan’s heretofore unknown vocal abilities are revealed in a rendition of “New York, New York” that, protracted nearly to the breaking point, is nearly as excruciating as it is exquisite.
But Brandon flips out when he discovers Sissy with the married David, who upbraids his employee for the huge porn collection he’s found on his work computer. His carefully constructed world cracking surprisingly easily, Brandon goes through the motions of attempting a proper, polite date with an interesting woman, Marianne (Nicole Beharie), but Brandon can’t hack it, literally or figuratively. Instead, he descends into a sexual abyss that enters Gaspar Noe territory, including an amazingly filmed, erotically charged three-way.
Given the boldness of Shame in its aesthetic approach, blunt sexuality, graphic nudity and sometimes exalted musical overlays, it’s a bit of a letdown to sense that McQueen and his co-screenwriter Abi Morgan ultimately present Brandon as something of a case study in sexual aberration due to stunted emotional growth stemming from a troubled upbringing. For a film so otherwise out-there, such a formulation feels too redolent of traditional psychoanalytical explanations for what society perceives as wayward behavior. The writers surely have their reasons for going this route, but for Shame to have been as thematically forthright as are its style and lead character, it arguably would have needed to just let Brandon be what he is, take it or leave it.
Be that as it may, Fassbender is incredible, capping a year which has also done exceptional work in X-Men: First Class and, especially, A Dangerous Method, which is hitting the festival circuit simultaneously with “Shame.” 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. Whether he becomes a real movie star is another matter but, when it comes to pure acting skill and potential, it’s possible that Daniel Day-Lewis now has a young challenger.
Exposing herself emotionally and physicly as she never has before, Mulligan is terrific in this unexpected role of a deeply wounded and troubled soul.
Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt and production designer Judy Becker have combined with McQueen’s evocative, mostly nocturnal use of Manhattan locations to create a luxuriously appointed but impersonal, borderline rancid world in which the characters’ noxious traits can stew and fester. It’s all as jolting as a strong whiff of ammonia.
Venue: Venice, Telluride film festivals
Production: See-Saw Prods.
Sales: HanWay Films
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale, Nicole Beharie
Director: Steve McQueen
Screenwriters: Steve McQueen, Abi Morgan
Producers: Iain Canning, Emile Sherman
Executive producers: Tessa Ross, Tim Haslam, Peter Hampden
Director of photography: Sean Bobbitt
Production designer: Judy Becker
Costume designer: David C. Robinson