Siblings Reconnect Over Shared Trauma in "Shame"

By Sean Burns
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Dec. 6, 2011

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Solo action: Brandon (Michael Fassbender) is a sex addict.

There’s normally nothing I find duller than films about addiction. Of course, such things are catnip for actors, custom-engineered with plenty of Oscar clip moments during the inevitable bottoming out sequences. But how many times can we as an audience travel the same trajectory of torment, relapse and recovery?

That’s why Steve McQueen’s Shame arrives with such a bracing jolt, following a familiar formula in ways that feel shocking and new. The subject of sex addiction often inspires giggles and cheap jokes. (Really, name a guy who isn’t addicted to sex. See, I couldn’t resist, either.) But the movie takes it deathly seriously, in a graphic fashion bound to make some viewers extremely uncomfortable. Brandon, a successful marketing executive played with recessive anguish by the extraordinary Michael Fassbender, could just as easily be hooked on booze or smack. What he’s seeking is oblivion.

He sleepwalks through McQueen’s steel-hued Manhattan in a daze, whether eye-fucking a young married woman in the subway or rubbing one out in his office bathroom. Brandon has no meaningful human contact and most times seems incapable of the simplest conversation. Horn-dogging it around town after work with his married, sleazeball boss (James Badge Dale, so convincingly loutish you’ll instinctively want to move your seat away from him) Brandon is a handsome blank—there’s something that just isn’t present.

But then Sissy shows up and shatters his self-imposed isolation. Carey Mulligan is a revelation as Brandon’s emotional train wreck of a sister, a loudmouth exhibitionist whose every foulmouthed outburst reads as a wail for help. We don’t learn much from their conversations, but she’s got plenty of scars on her wrists, and it’s confirmed that these two come from a bad place. They’ve obviously been estranged for quite some time, yet their alarming body language momentarily suggests incest.

She’s a nuisance straight away, cluttering up Brandon’s austere apartment with her vintage junk shop clothes and interrupting his busy schedule of chronic masturbation and wordless assignations with prostitutes. The more she bleats for his attention, the further he hides himself away. Until eventually there comes a spectacular sequence in which Brandon has no choice but to finally listen to his sister.

Sissy is a nightclub singer, and one night Brandon gets stuck with his boorish boss sitting next to him while she warbles an off-key, desperately sad rendition of “New York, New York”—a triumphant song reconfigured here as a mournful dirge, McQueen locks the camera in tight on Mulligan, and even tighter on Fassbender. The actors have nowhere to hide, and the pointed lyrics suddenly become all the backstory we need to know about Brandon and Sissy. The moment is shattering.

It’s a divisive scene, already mocked widely on the internet by the movie’s detractors. But Shame is that kind of movie, so fearless in its structural conceits and doom-laden humorlessness some folks are bound to snicker. For once I wasn’t one of them, as the ferocity of the performances and McQueen’s formal relentlessness left me pulverized.

Take, for instance, a later scene in which Brandon attempts to go on a proper date with a co-worker (Nicole Beharie.) It’s an awfully awkward dinner, exacerbated by one of the most comically incompetent waiters to ever land a job in the New York Service industry. But McQueen’s camera lurks far away, stubbornly refusing the relief of a close-up, or even a cut. Such small talk is a foreign language to Brandon, and the vastness of the space in which he’s framed cements his alienation. This is smart filmmaking.

The movie is stacked with bravura long takes, my favorite of which follows Brandon on a midnight jog through an eerily empty Manhattan. Sissy’s having some seriously noisy sex in his apartment, and Brandon blocks out the sounds by blasting the Goldberg Variations on his iPod, before taking to the streets and sprinting for what feels like an eternity in one heroically unbroken shot. The scene says as just as much about his condition as any of the film’s graphic fuck-fests, illustrating this character’s pathological need to make the world go away.

Ever since Shame premiered on the festival circuit earlier this year, there has been much ado about Fox Searchlight’s ballsy stance to release the film uncut, complete with the NC-17 rating that received wisdom tells us is box-office poison. It’s an admirable stand for a subsidiary of a major studio, even if people seem to be forgetting that Searchlight did the same thing with Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers back in 2003. Still, I doubt a movie as galvanizing as Shame had any blockbuster potential in the first place, but kudos to the studio for treating us like adults and allowing us to see it the way it was meant to be seen.

Grade: A

Director: Steve McQueen

Starring: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan and James Badge Dale

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