Steve McQueen’s ‘Shame’ is rated NC-17. The MPAA can be a bit on the puritanical side, as brilliantly illustrated in the documentary ‘This Film is Not Yet Rated’, so going in we were pretty sure that a random penis or a quick shot of some pubic hair is probably what warranted ‘Shame’ this completely underserved rating. Well bravo Steve McQueen, I stand corrected… I gotta say that ‘Shame’ earns its NC-17 honestly.
Brandon (Michael Fassbender) is miserable. Looking at the guy you would wonder why he’s so miserable considering he’s a tall, good looking fellow, lives in skyrise apartment in Manhattan of all places which also means he must have some loot, loot he apparently derives from his nice job in the glass office doing whatever the hell he does. But most importantly Brandon scores very easily with the ladies. I mean this cat doesn’t even need game to get over with women, because most of the time all he has to do is look at them and they fall. Ah… but this is where the problem lies with poor Brandon as he is sex addict, and if ‘Shame’ does one thing well it’s stripping away the chuckles and humor and laughter that is usually associated when we hear that somebody is a sex addict because believe me when I tell you, there is nothing remotely amusing about what Brandon Sullivan is going through.
You see, when Brandon isn’t picking up random women off the street or on the subway or in nightclubs, he’s paying for prostitutes. When he’s not paying for prostitutes he looking at porn at work. When he’s not looking at porn at work, he jerking off at work in the bathroom. When he’s not jerking off at work, he’s looking at his massive porn collection in his apartment and jerking off at home. All of this activity Brandon experiences is detached, uninvolved, and empty. And like any addict, he enjoys none of this but can’t stop.
Brandon’s miserable life gets even more miserable when his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) stops by for a surprise, elongated visit. Getting know Sissy, she’s an addict too. She’s co-dependent, she needs to be touched and loved. She needs to feel something all the time in order to fill something that’s missing. Something really awful happened to
Brandon and Sissy when they were children, this something being left to our unfortunate imaginations, but this something has created two very fractured adults.
Thus this is the issue with Brandon and Sissy’s relationship with each other. Sissy needs to be loved, Brandon is almost incapable of that emotion. Sissy needs to feel, Brandon avoids feelings at all costs. Sissy frustrates Brandon to no end, for one because she’s woefully irresponsible, but his main frustration with his sister seems to be that she’s clingy and he refuses to be clung to. It’s something he cannot emotionally process and when he and his sister’s relationship comes to a head, Brandon will descend into a night of sexual terror that we wouldn’t wish upon anyone. NC-17 rating has been earned.
McQueen’s ‘Shame’ is a challenging film, this much we can say. It’s not an overly complex film in narrative or theme, but it is very complex in raw emotion. Michael Fassbender, who completely owns this movie and I believe is in every single scene, delivers a character with Brandon Sullivan who is very sad, tragic even, and very much a victim as much as he’s a predator. But he’s not necessarily a victim who you can root for. Same goes for Sissy. In fact I don’t know what to do with these characters as an audience member viewing them, and their troubles, on an emotional level. To be honest with you I don’t know what to do with the entire movie. I mean one hand it’s pure genius but in the same breath it can be extremely frustrating.
The staging, the performances, the direction, McQueen’s ability to communicate emotional distress with few words, just by manipulating his characters expressions and his camera placement has created something that is very powerful and almost poetic. But at the end of the day you would like to feel something for the characters you’ve been spending all this quality time with. I think I got to know them pretty well, but I don’t know if I felt anything in particular for their plight, be it pity, empathy, sadness, hope… I was just an observer on the sidelines watching them self destruct.
Regardless of all of that, what is undeniable, at least as far as I’m concerned, is that ‘Shame’ is a very powerful film and brilliantly illustrates the destructiveness of addiction. Fassbender and Mulligan are outstanding in what had to be extremely difficult roles for both actors, there wasn’t much in the way of supporting actors in this sparse drama outside James Badge Dale as Brandon’s slimy boss and Nicole Beharie as a doomed love interest for Brandon, but both were exemplary, especially the stunning Beharie, and Steve McQueen has crafted one of the more difficult, unsettling, depressing but effective films dealing with addiction that we’ve recently seen. ‘Requiem for a Dream’ now has some legitimate competition.