As the last of 2011’s headier fare makes it to town riding the wave of awards-season notoriety, Steve McQueen’s Shame might be the most frustrating of them all. On one hand, part of me would like to score the film higher than the four stars I’ve given it, due solely to its audacity and the unabashed performances of its leads Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan. But then there’s another piece of me that still can’t quite warm up to Shame. There’s a side to the film that prevented me from truly caring about its characters—and that kept me from being totally engaged. This, I believe, is the key to unlocking McQueen’s film—you really must be on the same wavelength as the director’s particular arthouse aesthetic.
Shame is a sparse movie, centered around a businessman named Brandon (Fassbender) who suffers from sex addiction. It’s a dependence that causes him to constantly look for sexual release by any means—whether it be with prostitutes or self-gratification—and the addiction is nibbling around the edges of his successful life. But the biggest problem for Brandon is how it walls him in and quarantines him from others.
We see it in shades with the people he interacts with—like the co-worker (Nicole Beharie, The Express) he seduces, the way that tryst falls apart, and his ultimate method of coping with this failure. But we’re mostly shown the depth of this struggle when his sister, Sissy (Mulligan), shows up on his doorstep—with her own emotional issues. The scene where Brandon is brought to tears by Sissy’s nightclub rendition of “New York, New York” makes it obvious that he cares about her, but her arrival threatens the shell of privacy he’s built around himself. By the end of the film, the shame the title refers to is less about how the world sees him and more about Brandon’s complicated relationship with Sissy.
This is part of the difficulty I have with the film: Since Brandon wants to keep everyone at arm’s length, the audience is never able to really know him either, and it’s difficult cultivate sympathy towards the man. Fassbender does the best he can though, with a restrained perfomance that nevertheless puts it all out there—in every sense of the phrase. (To echo the ad campaign of Ken Russell’s Savage Messiah, Shame does indeed reveal Mr. Fassbender “full frontal in a scene longer than the normal glimpse.”) The movie earns every bit of its NC-17 rating. Be forewarned, if you have even the slightest aversion to explicit sexual content onscreen, don’t bother with Shame.
Fassbender’s performance, however, echoes with my problems with McQueen’s direction: Though sneakily brilliant at times, it’s far too stolid and understated. For me, McQueen’s approach is a mixed bag. I admire his visual use of the entire frame, but his long-take approach leaves the film listless. McQueen’s measured, slow pacing can occasionally be mesmerizing, but too often falls prey to being dramatically inert. There’s something intrinsically wrong with a movie that graphically depicts a threesome, and yet my strongest reaction to it is that I wish I had a fast-forward button. The sex in Shame is never erotic or titillating, but that might be the point. Brandon’s addiction isn’t supposed to be fun, it’s supposed to be hellish. McQueen perhaps establishes all too well that it prevents Brandon from connecting with the rest of humanity. The pity then lies in our own inability to really connect with Shame’s characters, making it difficult to truly care. It’s a flaw that ultimately dampens the impact McQueen’s shooting for. Rated NC-17 for some explicit sexual content.