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Monday, December 5, 2011

Shame Review

2011, 101 minutes
Rated NC-17 for some explicit sexual content

Shame is the challenging and provocative new piece from director Steve McQueen who earned praise for his film Hunger which like Shame, starred Michael Fassbender.  Fassbender, who has proved this year to be one of the most versatile and fascinating up-and-coming actors, gives another Oscar-worthy performance in this film.  This year, Fassbender has starred in X-Men: First Class as Magneto, the excellent Jane Eyre as Mr. Rochester, and A Dangerous Method as Carl Jung.  I have seen all but A Dangerous Method (which I hear is quite good) and Fassbender is flawless in all of them.  In Shame, Fassbender plays a very different character in a very different way.  He plays Brandon, a New Yorker who is a sex addict.  Morning, noon, and night, he is looking at porn, taking trips to the bathroom to satisfy his "needs" during work, and picking up women at bars or hiring prostitutes.  His apartment is full of porn and a woman on a sex webcam (shown when his sister looks at his computer screen) knows Brandon.  One day, Brandon's troubled sister, Sissy (a phenomenal Carey Mulligan), shows up and lives with him.  During her stay, both of their lives start to deconstruct. 

Though everything in this film is fantastic, Fassbender is the highlight.  He plays Brandon in a very similar way to Javier Bardem in last year's Biutiful.  Fassbender uses his face to show everything that is going on within him.  In the film, Brandon says little and has no passion for the sex he engages in.  Fassbender shows this with a blank stare.  In one of the most interesting moments of the film, Brandon, walks his office intern Marianne (after a date) to the subway.  The two fall silent; a perfect moment for a kiss.  Instead, she stares at him waiting.  He just looks blankly.  His only attempt at a real, meaningful relationship fails due to his inability to connect with a woman outside of sex.  In another haunting scene, Sissy is singing an incredibly sad and slow rendition of "New York, New York" at a nightclub.  Brandon and his boss are there and Brandon sheds a single tear listening to her.  Due to the lack of backstory, one wonders, what happened to the two siblings before we see them.  In this scene, Fassbender says nothing.  He just stares at her and looks pained.  This performance is one to look for come Oscar time and is also one that certainly took confidence and guts to take on (there are many full-frontal nude scenes).

Carey Mulligan, in another electrifying performance, plays Sissy.  She also has a nude scene and plays the part of Sissy so naturally and so at ease that it looks effortless.  Few actresses would be willing to do what she does in this movie.  She, like Fassbender, says very little and actually is not on screen for a large amount of time, but when she is on, she is marvelous.  She shows everything through her face and speaks volumes.  Do not be surprised if she too is nominated for an Oscar come January.

Steve McQueen's direction and script (he co-wrote it with Abi Morgan) is brilliant in this film.  He keeps the shots stationary and his editor has relatively few edits in between scenes.  He keeps the film lit with either very cold blue and grey lighting or very warm brown and red lighting.  The pacing of the film's first half is very off-putting as some scenes tend to drag on forever.  However, this seems to be intentional as the film's pace follows Brandon's life.  Without a constant supply of sex due to Sissy's presence, Brandon's life seems to slow down as does the movie's pace.  However, in the second half, Brandon's desperation grows and his sexual episodes become more and more frequent, as does the pace of the film.  McQueen's direction is a true work of artistry at its most challenging and ambitious.  His and Morgan's script is also very smart as it is honest and realistic.  Everything comes full circle in the ingenious final scene.

A burning question many of you may have is whether the sex scenes that earned this film an NC-17 rating are necessary.  They absolutely are because they add to the grittiness and the honesty that this film portrays.  Not since 2007's Lust, Caution have I seen such strategically placed and smartly-done sex scenes.  In each film, the sex adds character development.  If you have not seen Lust, Caution, definitely see it.  However, I will warn you, the sex in this film is the most graphic simulated sex that I have ever seen.  So, if you are bothered by this (you should not be with this film as it is not used for exploitation), think twice before seeing it.  This is one of few NC-17-rated films that I can safely say absolutely deserved it.  After all, this is an adult-oriented film that no one under 17 or 18 should be viewing anyway.

Overall, Shame is a great piece of cinema and one of the year's best films.  Please see this, but know what you are about to see before you see it.  And, do not make the mistake of seeing this with your parents or bringing a date to this.  You will regret it.

-Joshua Handler

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