Directed by Steve McQueen
Screenplay by Steve McQueen and Abi Morgan
James Badge Dale
How long is Shame? 101 minutes.
What is Shame rated? NC-17 for some explicit sexual content.
’Shame’ Makes Sex Secondary To Sadness:
Fassbender and McQueen reunite for another powerful film.
Shame is not a story of redemption. It’s not about how the love of a good woman can change a man or how the promise of a wife, kids, and house in the suburbs can overcome one’s lifelong reluctance to form emotional connections. It’s not about the causes behind dysfunction. It’s not about overcoming one’s demons. It’s about damaged people living broken lives; a character study rather than a cautionary tale.
Michael Fassbender (who is having a banner year with X-Men: First Class, A Dangerous Method, and Shame) stars as Brandon, a sex addict. Unlike many films about addiction where they overplay the compulsion, Shame wisely downplays it, nor does it use sexual addiction to laugh at the character. Brandon’s conflicts and desires play out quietly as Fassbender’s torment is primarily an internal matter; he suffers alone, not for the cameras. The way he stares at a woman getting naked in his bedroom or leers at one on a train makes you understand that he doesn’t get pleasure from what he does (he is a profoundly sad character), it’s a compulsion (one that extends to masturbating at work, owning an excessive pornography collection, and actually paying for porno sites).
Additionally, Brandon is not some sort of Lothario. He knows tricks and exudes a powerful sexual charisma, but he isn’t a courting genius. At times, he seems shy as he holds back his overwhelming passion and shows desperation when unable to fulfill his needs. Brandon isn’t a guy who enjoys the game nor does he seem to want to take advantage of women, but he needs his fix and accomplishes it with as little human connection as possible, preferring prostitutes to a willing partner whom he actually knows.
The difference between someone like Brandon and the “average guy” shows clearly in scenes with his boss David (James Badge Dale, who, between Rubicon and The Pacific, has come a long way from being one in a long line of Jack Bauer’s Tragically Fated Partners). When David outwardly praises a woman (and her prominent features) to his group of co-workers, conducts an initial flirtation, and uses lame pick-up lines, you sense the silent Brandon’s bemusement at his sloppy techniques and the differences between the worlds in which they live.
Brandon’s life is somewhat altered when his (at the very least) clinically depressed and suicidal sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan, who now stars in two of the year’s best movies (Drive being the other)) moves into his apartment. Like with Brandon, Sissy’s damage influences her personality but does not define the character. She’s not the “crazy chick” who comes in to screw up Brandon’s life, but another broken individual who prefers to keep her dysfunction hidden from the public, although she is significantly more open than Brandon is. Both Fassbender and Mulligan have an excellent chemistry together as brother and sister, even though they aren’t particularly close despite Sissy’s desperate attempts to forge a connection with him. Brandon maintains the same distance from her as he does with everyone else, and it’s not because he has a tough outer shell to cover up a warm inner core.
While Shame has some of the scenes you’d expect from an addiction story (e.g. the “emptying of the bottles,” the rock bottom scene, the effect it has on his personal and professional life (though Brandon’s addiction is never obvious to outsiders)), it presents them well and shows sex addiction as an actual addiction. Moreover, Shame avoids some of the other tropes of the genre. We don’t see therapists, we don’t see meetings, we don’t learn why Sissy and Brandon are the way they are. And the film works best this way.
Director and co-writer Steve McQueen (whose previous film, the terrific Hunger, also starred Michael Fassbender) continues to show himself as a remarkable filmmaker. His dialogue contains the humor, humanity, and subtlety often lacking in other character dramas. McQueen allows Brandon to be a man with an addiction rather than an addict and Sissy’s emotional issues to ring true. One of McQueen’s most remarkable traits is his preference for the unbroken scene. Many moments (both action-based and dialogue-based) play without any cuts at all, just the characters performing their lines or movements. Because of how rare this is in films, you forget how powerful and involving this technique can be. Discussions play out more naturally, and the ways characters react to one another seem more genuine. It also leads to a greater showcase for the performers because of how it requires them to maintain the scene (and the emotion) straight for several minutes, as opposed to the director choosing different line readings or reaction shots from many takes.
While Shame has nudity and even full frontal nudity of men and women, it’s not a sexy film. Intercourse is not treated with joy and genitals lack titillation; sex and nudity become a boring and empty necessity. Brandon must do it, he hates himself for doing it, it’s the only thing in his life that holds any value for him, but the movie shows that the depravity is in the person, not the act.