Shame Review, Rewritten
2011, 101 minutes
Rated NC-17 for some explicit sexual content
Some films are like pieces of candy: empty calories. Some are like a breakfast bar: nutritious and satisfying. Some others, however, are like a new flavor: unconventional and fascinating. One such film is the second feature film by co-writer/director Steve McQueen, Shame.
Shame stars Michael Fassbender as Brandon, a successful man in his thirties who has a sex addiction and is unable to have a meaningful romantic relationship. One day, Brandon returns to his apartment to find that his self-destructive sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), has moved in. As Sissy stays longer and longer, we learn more and more about Brandon, and we see both of their lives spiral out of control.
The most striking aspect of Shame is its performances, particularly that of the incredibly versatile Michael Fassbender. I typically get bored after seeing an actor in multiple films in one year, but Fassbender has such a magnetic screen presence and is such chameleon that I relish every opportunity I get to watch him turn into another character. Playing such varied roles this past year as Magneto in X-Men: First Class and Carl Jung in A Dangerous Method, he strikes again with a brilliant performance as Brandon. In Shame, Fassbender creates an interesting personality using very little dialogue, an approach others have used recently to great effect (e.g. Javier Bardem in Biutiful). Fassbender uses his face to convey volumes of emotion, building despair and shame. In one scene, Brandon is sitting in his room, trying to avoid the sounds of Sissy making love with his boss. Curling up on his bed in the corner of his room, we see a pained expression on Brandon’s face that suggests a troubled past. Though not specifically mentioned in the film, Brandon and Sissy’s characters are developed in ways reminiscent of those with a past of sexual abuse. Brandon has been unable to satisfy his sex addiction since Sissy moved in, making him increasingly desperate – a man in active withdrawal. This scene, among many others in the film, epitomizes the genius of Fassbender. Without saying a single word, I could hear his voice.
Fassbender’s performance is matched only by the direction of Steve McQueen. McQueen, coming off of his critical success Hunger (also starring Michael Fassbender), has created a vision and a style all his own. McQueen makes the film as realistic and raw as possible, and he achieves this through long takes while keeping tight control over the film. In a scene when Brandon is on a date at a restaurant, McQueen sets the camera by the table and films a large portion of the meal with no edits. This realism emphasizes the rawness of this story. I felt like a fly on the wall while watching Shame.
Shame’s screenplay, co-written by Steve McQueen and Abi Morgan, adds to the genius of the film. The beginning and end are like bookends, an elliptical structure befitting of the rest of the story. Each scene is completely wordless as facial expressions take the place of dialogue, conveying a large message with a hard impact. For the screenwriters to use a dialogue-free method to show the meaning of their film is impressive. In an age where movies must have rapid-fire dialogue to keep audiences interested, it is comforting to see that some writers don’t feel the need to conform.
Shame is a film built on ironies. In the beginning Brandon tries to seduce a woman by simply looking at her. He believes that she is flirting with him and fails to notice her wedding ring. Yet, when Brandon confronts Sissy about her affair with his boss later in the film, he yells at her for not noticing his boss’s wedding ring. Subtle ironies such as these add to the power of the film as they add humanity to the characters. With these ironies, the film says that addiction can only be controlled when the addict can step back and gain some perspective on his actions. If not, he will be as lost as Brandon and Sissy.
Even though this film was nearly perfect, it did have one minor flaw: the pacing was a bit slow in parts. For example, an overlong take of Brandon jogging briefly lost my attention – a minor flaw in a major film.
Shame is the equivalent to a new food that is unique and distinctive. I had witnessed a dark and intense aspect of humanity. By the end, I was full.