A devastatingly honest study of human desolation, Steve McQueen’s Shame boldly delves into the life of a man held captive by what comes effortlessly to him. Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender) is handsome, intelligent and charismatic; a product of a society obsessed with image and information.
The veneer of Brandon’s appearance and behavior is meticulously crafted. He knows exactly the right reaction to convey at the right moment. His smiles are easy, kind, self-effacing. He is a quiet observer and an empathizer. Yet this veneer has subtle fissures that reveal a simmering rage and self-loathing beneath.
Under close scrutiny, the successful life he attempts to project is similarly flawed. His New York high-rise apartment’s thin kitchen cabinets and plywood doors are disguised by a clever coat of paint. There is no doorman at the front entrance. His fastidiously chosen furniture and electronic devices boast a lifestyle he hasn’t quite yet achieved; he shares an office with a co-worker instead of having his own.
Hidden deep within this ornamental façade is a base addiction that secretly compels his daily actions. Brandon prowls bars in search of a willing participant to sate his need for sexual gratification, or when none is to be found, hires from an escort service. Innocuous “triggers” cause him to pace and twitch like a drug addict. The sex he engages in is raw and mechanical, never erotic.
Like a house of cards, his carefully perfected routine begins to collapse upon the unexpected arrival of his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan). Draped in bravado and vintage fashion accessories she has cobbled together, Sissy tries to project the image of a classic Hollywood starlet. The posturing translates as a lost little girl’s need for approval. Brandon recognizes her compulsion, and expresses his concern with a gentle restraint that only a kindred spirit is capable of.
The complex relationship he shares with his sister is the backbone of the film. It teeters between an almost incestuous fascination (that comes bundled with attendant feelings of guilt and resentment) and a deep, abiding understanding that only two people who have survived a common trial-by-fire can share. Like Sissy, he is self-destructive. Instead of the scars notched in her forearms, the people he beds keep a morbid tally of his misery.
He recognizes her loneliness, eavesdropping on her near-hysterical pleading over the phone to an ex-flame through a closed door, his downcast eyes betraying his sympathy. Two of the most poignant scenes in the film revolve around the siblings. The first is Sissy’s haunting, near-a cappella version of New York, New York, filmed in a daring close up. The shot is only interrupted once: to focus on Brandon as he struggles to mask his visceral reaction. The second is filmed with a similar myopathy, and captures the two huddled together on a too-narrow couch, Sissy desperate for affection, and Brandon choking on her neediness. The resulting argument is explosive and claustrophobic, and seen only in profile.
Director McQueen uses space like a third character in each frame. Every moment serves a purpose, whether it be a mangled crosswalk sign casting a ghostly sheen over a rain-slick sidewalk, or a lingering shot of a bathroom door exterior, hinting at Brandon’s covert and lonely satiation of his constant hunger.
His addiction is reflected in his aversion to any human intimacy; Sissy’s request for a simple hug is met with a minute flinch and a stiff, cursory embrace. Any sexual encounter that isn’t either bought or anonymous crushes Brandon with paralytic physical dysfunction. Yet he is a paradox; a man still capable of simple moments of humanity, like when he asks a call girl if she needs help hooking her bra back on after an animalistic rutting against a window pane, or how he rushes over to help a woman with a stroller struggling with a heavy door. Even the most depraved of his sexual “fixes” involve deep, open-mouthed kissing, an act that possesses an inherent emotional intimacy for many of us. Mr. Fassbender observes of his character, “[Brandon] is a very physical person. That’s evident in how he goes about things; it’s about devouring things, it’s about taking.”
This keen insight is representative of his performance, which is nothing less than astonishing. He carries an elegant, sparsely-worded screenplay with silent depth and gravitas, capable of conveying more in a glance than most of his peers are with an entire paragraph of dialogue at their disposal. Brandon’s unraveling during the film’s emotional denouement is visually indelible. If the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences doesn’t honor him with a nomination in January, they will be hard-pressed to justify it. His total surrender to the character is evocative of Daniel Day Lewis’ turn in In the Name of the Father.
Mr. McQueen places a significant trust in his star, and is rewarded with a film that is a pitch-perfect companion to their earlier collaboration, Hunger. He is an auteur-in-the-making, and possesses the potential of a Malick, capable of injecting the most simple of human truths into pure and unflinching motifs. Where Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life is a euphoric celebration of humanity’s insignificant, yet sacred, place within the cosmos, Shame is the study of our species’ need to find connection in spite of our more selfish and isolating primal vices. The film’s use of space and motion possesses an almost melodic quality, creating a rhythm for Mr. Fassbender and Ms. Mulligan to delicately orbit each other with. The resulting chemistry is organic, their dynamic magical. There are moments of pure whimsy and joy between them that makes the sadness of their history bearable. In the end, all they have is each other.
Shame is a film that transcends the stigma of its rating. It affected me more than Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy, the first and only X-rated work to win Best Film at the Academy Awards®. Cowboy represented an era in American film making which was rebellious and brave, reflective of the tumultuous time it was borne out of. Given the right exposure, Shame deserves to become a similar cultural landmark.
SHAME • Dolby® Digital surround sound in select theatres • Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 • Running Time: 101 minutes • MPAA Rating: NC-17 for some explicit sexual content. • Distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures