Shame - Directed by Steve McQueen, written by McQueen and Abi Morgan, starring Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, and James Badge Dale - Rated NC-17
Solitary is the key word of Shame. Brandon is utterly alone, no matter how many sexual encounters he has. You don’t see this from the narrative necessarily; you see it in Fassbender’s eyes. It’s almost cliché to call a great performance “understated,” but it’s hard to describe this quiet performance in other terms. Fassbender gives a performance of the eyes…it’s Clooney-esque (which is a good thing, in my opinion). There are plenty of scenes in which Fassbender gets to be bold, but for the most part he is most impressive while staring. Some of the most powerful scenes consist of Fassbender staring his way through New York. His scenes on the subway are non-verbal yet contain the emotional core of the film.
Fassbender is easily the highlight of the film, but it is not his film alone. Writer/director Steve McQueen (he also directed Fassbender in his breakout role in Hunger) impresses in this sophomore effort through color, lighting, music, and camerawork. The montage sequences have an art that makes them seem like their own short films. The diverse color scheme and dimly lit scenes shroud the film in beautiful darkness. McQueen also knows when to have the camera follow Fassbender (who is in nearly every frame of the film) and when to stay behind and let him go.
Shame is still quite a simple movie, however, in that it is an addiction movie and we see Brandon hit his low points and hurt people around him. So at times it gets almost melodramatic. There is also the possibility that some would argue that sex addiction isn’t a “real” addiction. Regardless of your opinion, this movie should at least make you think about it. For one thing, sex addiction doesn’t get a lot of respect since it is a relatively modern diagnosis. This isn’t because it’s made up or new or anything, but because of how society has changed. Because of the internet, access to sexually explicit material is exponentially easier than it was decades ago. Shame addresses this and that is what makes it a bit more interesting than being saddled as the “sex addiction movie.”
Brandon is constantly on his laptop on pornographic sites and there is a subplot involving his work computer. We see it being carted away in an early scene in which we hear Brandon’s boss (out of context) say, “I found you disgusting,” as Brandon looks nervously at the IT guy. On top of the technological era Brandon lives in, he is also in New York and is never far away from anonymous sex. A pivotal moment in the film finds Brandon staring up at an apartment building where he instantly notices a couple having sex, he then looks to the window of a restaurant where his date awaits. What to do?
Brandon’s choices aren’t nearly as telling as the reason behind his options. When faced with the prospect of anonymous sex or a potentially emotionally rewarding relationship, most would hopefully (or at least eventually) choose the actual relationship. Brandon tries to go with a typical relationship and those scenes show his true addiction. He may show desperation and, yes, shame during the sex scenes, but it’s the regular date scenes that are telling. Everything is so awkward and boring and there is no gratification. If this was a drug movie, Brandon would find a dealer and shoot up as soon as he left the date.
Shame may come across as an overly serious addiction movie, but if you give it a chance, you’ll see that it is actually a beautiful, depressing portrait of man who happens to be an addict. Addiction (sex or otherwise) should not be the focus here, though. All eyes should be on Michael Fassbender (insert comical reference to NC-17 rating here) because he makes a beautiful, if slightly plain, addiction film one of the year’s best.
Random Thoughts (SPOILERS)
The NC-17 rating is not that big of a deal, but Shame certainly earns it more than Blue Valentine did last year. Don't focus on the rating, though. It's about a sex addict, it kind of has to be NC-17.
The subway train as a metaphor for Brandon's addiction worked for me. The ambiguous ending of whether or not he stays on the train is interesting and makes all the subway scenes before it more interesting. Using a train might feel heavy-handed to some, though. Referring to one's life as a trainwreck or going off the rails is pretty common so equating addiction with a train might diminish it for some. But I dug it.
I didn't really mention the supporting cast, but James Badge Dale makes for a convincing douchebag. And Carey Mulligan is fine against Fassbender in some tense, strange scenes. I would have no problem with her getting a nomination for supporting actress for this. But this is still Fassbender's movie.