There are several things Steve McQueen’s Shame isn’t trying to be. Sexy is one of them. The titillating aspects of its explicit sexual content – as this is a movie about sex addiction – are icily downplayed in favor of a fascinating character study that suggests to be frail is to be human. This also isn’t a tale of gritty late-in-the-game redemption. There is no cautionary yellow light in its stop-and-go flashing. Shame simply wants to move its audience with a smoldering slow burn of intense performances and insistent material.
Michael Fassbender (who has had a hell of a year with acting turns in Jane Eyre, X-Men: First Class, and A Dangerous Method) stars as a 30-something yuppie who is simply unable to change his sexual urges. Without pity; without humor; without pause, the conflict of a sex addict plays out internally as Brandon Sullivan suffers alone.
It is quickly and quietly established that Brandon, acting as his own judge and jailor, has placed himself in a self-deprecating sort of prison of addiction; he has no control over the impulses and no release from the torment it causes. There is no pleasure attained from his massive pornography collection or the observation of a naked woman; there is no joy in being driven to masturbate at work. There’s no play in the chase between male and female and the resulting sexual encounters from his encounters are downright chilling.
When Brandon’s rebellious and, in my estimation, clinically depressed sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), moves in to his apartment, Brandon discovers just out of control his life and addiction has become. He recognizes the differences in the world he inhabits and the one that David (James Badge Dale) resides in as he coolly watches his boss stumble over silly pick-up lines to women. Sissy tries to build a bridge that extends between them, but their damages keep them from being close.
It’s an unsettling film that looks at broken people as exactly that: beyond repair. It doesn’t explore the reasons why. It also avoids some of the other familiar tropes you’d expect to see in a film about addiction. There are no therapy scenes; no group meetings; no observances from outside characters. No, this is a divisive film that is more unsettling than it is therapeutic.
Shame is completely stark and naked in its personal affectations. It explores that gray area where what most see as passion becomes one man’s desperation. Full-frontal nudity from male and countless females is its specialty and, unashamed, it proudly wraps its overgrown mess of short and curlies around the tangled subject of addiction. What could be more human?
Yet, the inner core of this film is the chemistry shared between Fassbinder and Mulligan. They are the dynamic duo of dysfunction. There is a quiet intensity that boils like soup on a stove between them, finally bubbling with genuine humanity. Long scenes create an unbroken intensity that recalls a stage production. Characters and their facial reactions are at the heart of McQueen’s hypnotic film. Fassbender, using voice inflections and reflective facial nuances, sells the performance with phenomenal grace and subtlety.
McQueen’s screenplay, co-written by Abi Morgan, reveals itself to be as honest as the performances. The dialogue crackles with honest expression and sharp lines that don’t shy away from the distance inherent in the characters or treat its material as mere soap opera. Harrowing, cold, and tasteful, the screenplay alone is worthy of notice. It’s a manual of sorts that should be followed for future writers who wish to deal with edgy material. It offers no explanations and, by doing so, remains more fulfilling.
Character dramas simply do not get much better than this. It’s already causing a stir in some film circles. Some critics fail to see it as anything less than a wink-wink at a serious subject; some are calling it a hollow art house film; others find it too slow and methodical for its own good. Shame is being labeled as irresponsible by some critics and being hailed as 2011’s answer to Midnight Cowboy from others. I get that. I both agree and disagree with their concerns; Shame elicits that type of response and that, my friends, is saying something strong about the quality of the film.
While its meditative processes may bore some audiences, the truth is that Shame will not be denied of an award or two when it comes time for the 2011 day of reckoning.
MPAA Rating: NC-17 for some explicit sexual content.
Director: Steve McQueen
Writer: Abi Morgan; Steve McQueen
Cast: Michael Fassbender; Lucy Walters; James Badge Dale; Carey Mulligan; Lucy Walters; Hannah Ware
Memorable Movie Quote: "Your hard drive is filthy, all right."
Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Official Site: www.foxsearchlight.com/shame
Release Date: December 2, 2011
DVD/Blu-ray Release Date: April 17, 2012.
Synopsis: Brandon (Michael Fassbender) is a New Yorker who shuns intimacy with women but feeds his desires with a compulsive addiction to sex. When his wayward younger sister (Carey Mulligan) moves into his apartment and stirs up memories of their shared painful past, Brandon’s insular life spirals out of control.
Available on Blu-ray - April 17, 2012
Screen Formats: 16:9
Subtitles: English, Spanish
Audio: English: 5.1 DTS-HD-MA; Spanish: 5.1 DD
U.S. Rating: NC-17
Total Run Time: 02:05:39
Discs: 50GB Blu-ray Disc; Single disc (1 BD); Digital copy
The SHAME Blu-ray Combo Pack presentation features a premium high definition Blu-ray loaded with special features, a DVD version of the film and Digital Copy. Get a behind-the-scenes look at McQueen’s groundbreaking vision with the following exclusive extras and featurettes.
Special Features to be included:
- Focus on Michael Fassbender Director Steve McQueen The Story of Shame
- A Shared Vision
- A Shared Vision
- Fox Movie Channel Presents: In Character With Michael Fassbender Theatrical Trailer