Mark Reviews Movies

Shame (2011)

SHAME (2011)

2 ½ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Steve McQueen

Cast: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale, Nicole Beharie

MPAA Rating: NC-17 (for some explicit sexual content)

Running Time: 1:41

Release Date: 12/2/11


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Review by Mark Dujsik | December 2, 2011

Artfully composed and constructed, Shame depicts the hollow, unfulfilling life of a sex addict and winds up sharing those same traits. On a visceral level, that sensation of emptiness is wholly in line with co-writer/director Steve McQueen's aim of studying the insidiously destructive nature of addiction. On a thematic level, the movie is repetitive—constantly pounding away upon the same points in its own subdued way—from its opening shot of a shell of a man staring at and into nothing to its final shot of the same man staring at something with nothing in his eyes.

As a result, it's completely appropriate that the movie's moment of catharsis arrives as its protagonist thrusts away in the midst of a hypnotically filmed ménage à trios as a minimalist instrumental piece by Harry Escott substitutes the moans and groans of passion. As a freestanding sequence, it highlights the character's emotional and psychological separation from the actual act of intercourse; the focus is entirely physical as the camera lingers on sections of bodies contorted in close-up and cut without any sense of fluidity. This is not a desire for this man but an insatiable need. In the context of the rest of the movie, it is merely one more assertion of an outlook—the movie's only one, really—that McQueen makes countless times beforehand.

The addict is Brandon (Michael Fassbender), a well-to-do man, we suppose, since he lives in a high-rise apartment in New York City and works at a firm that does something or other where his friend David (James Badge Dale) is the boss. His job means little to his life except a paycheck (and, for McQueen and co-screenwriter Abi Morgan, an opportunity to have David give a speech about being disgusting that seems directly targeted at Brandon until it's revealed that the address is just generic), and the income only provides him with the means for living—an apartment and a string of prostitutes.

The abode itself is practically bare, save for the necessities; in Brandon's case, these would be a bed (for obvious reasons), a toilet, a shower (in which his daily ritual includes masturbating), a laptop (from which he can watch pornography or participate in online chat rooms), and a table upon which he can place said computer. He has a definitive set of rituals to his life, which McQueen suggests have become engrained to his basic functioning as a human being through an opening montage that intercuts and, hence, equalizes his quietly seductive flirtation with a woman with the physiological requirement to drain his bladder in the morning.

Into this creature of habit's life enters his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan), after repeated attempts to contact him by phone and a series of voice messages, which Brandon plays as background noise to his customs. She is a struggling singer who has moved from city to city across the country seeking work. She's also her brother's opposite (Both characters are introduced to the audience naked, just to further emphasize the requisite comparison)—a woman driven by emotion who calls up a lover who has jilted her to beg and plead for reconciliation (Later, she seems to have memorized another man's schedule after a brief and, from his end at least, one-time encounter). With nowhere else to stay, Brandon agrees that she can sleep at his place for a while, as long as she leaves with him in the morning. After that, he could not care less what she does with herself.

Fassbender and Mulligan are strong in their individual performances, creating each of their character's unique desperation. During an extended scene in a bar where Sissy performs, McQueen holds on each of their faces in long back-and-forth shots. As she sings an almost sinister rendition of "Theme from New York, New York" (The phrasing comes across as accepting a mournful sense of predetermination), Brandon for the first time shows the faintest suggestion of emotion (The other is frustration at losing his privacy, which he offsets by going for a late-night gallop down the street). The tears stream down his face, we surmise, only partially out of compassion for his sister; there is a note of self-reflection in Fassbender's face (After all, he is not exactly making it in New York City, either).

These relatively silent moments are the movie's strongest ones, as McQueen and the two lead actors are capable of expressing more through speechless composition and visage than words can communicate. The occasional dialogue pieces are roundabout, meant only to underscore that the two are unable to effectively discuss their problems (Sissy hints late in the movie something regarding their upbringing that has no context and only serves to hinder instead of illuminate). Brandon's attempt to have a normal date with a co-worker (Nicole Beharie) about whom he fantasizes really only solidifies what we already suspect: He doesn't believe in monogamy and has never had a relationship of any significant length. The payoff, in which he is unable to become aroused until he sends the co-worker away and calls a prostitute, is the truly enlightening part.

There are a few such moments in the movie, mostly in the sensuous montages that simply observe Brandon in his patterns. Still, despite its performances and McQueen's arresting rhythm, Shame is a one-note affair about misery.

Copyright © 2011 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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