A searing study of the consuming consequences of sex addiction, Shame reunites director Steve McQueen with his Hunger star Michael Fassbender and cements them both as talents to watch in the years to come.
Brandon (Fassbender) is addicted to sex. It dominates his psyche, and he can't even go through a day of work without contaminating his work computer or taking a break to masturbate in the bathroom. He has a great apartment and a good job in New York City, and spends his nights either with hookers or watching porn on his computer. A sudden visit from his troubled sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) introduces the conflict of the story, as Brandon's world is shaken and his life becomes far more complicated.
As you may have heard, both Fassbender and Mulligan go full frontal for this movie. Though it never shows any penetration, the film gets dangerously close in multiple scenes, and absolutely deserves its NC-17 rating. For a movie that showcases sex so frequently, one might think there would be a titillating factor to the proceedings. But director Steve McQueen manages to turn sex, as seen through Brandon's eyes, into an act devoid of emotion or personality; a necessity rather than a passion. Stimulation is replaced with pity for the character as we feel sorry for the way he lives and his unstable grasp on reality.
In this film, McQueen often employs one of my favorite filmmaking techniques: the long take. (I haven't yet seen the director's debut film, Hunger, so I'm not sure if this usage continues a pattern for him.) In a world where quick cuts reign supreme in the editing room, it's refreshing to see a director choose to let his actors bring the work to life in long uncut sequences. Fassbender is in most of these, and he's fantastic, but Carey Mulligan gets her chance to shine, too - since her character is a singer, she performs a super slowed down version of "New York, New York" that is, for the most part, shot in one long close up on her face. There are two groups of people in this world: those that will find this scene mesmerizing, and those that will be bored as hell. Count me among the former, but I can absolutely understand the latter's point of view.
The tone of that scene is reflected throughout the entire movie. This is a contemplative film, interested more in the psychological complexities of sex addiction than the constant progression of a narrative. It is first and foremost a character study, and therefore sacrifices some narrative momentum in favor of meditative moments for the leads. It's a purely adult drama, seemingly a dying breed in theaters at a time when studios would have us believe huge blockbusters or microbudget horror films are the only viable properties. Shame will definitely be too much for general audiences, but cinephiles and the arthouse crowd will find a lot to like between the astounding performances and the assured direction. Until next time...