A film review by Craig J. Koban February 25, 2012

Rank:  #4

SHAME jjjj

2011, NC-17, 99 mins.


Brandon: Michael Fassbender / Sissy: Carey Mulligan / David: James Badge Dale / Marianne:  Nicole Beharie

Directed by Steve McQueen / Written by McQueen and Abi Morgan.

I used to incredulously laugh when I heard of cases of people that had sex addictions.  This couldn’t be an obsessive and self-destructive compulsion in the same vein as alcoholism or drug abuse…right?  

After seeing Steve McQueen’s powerful, challenging, and unforgettable SHAME I think I may be changing my tune.  The addict in the film is indeed self-loathingly infatuated with sex and the always-lingering need to achieve orgasm.  To me, sex should inspire sensations of pleasure and ecstasy; there is no pleasure in this film’s tormented soul.  This is a pitiful, unfortunate, and sick man that has become completely preoccupied with lust and the need to feel sexually satisfied.  He does not want relationships or love in his heart; just his cravings fulfilled.  How could this not be an addiction? 

Worse yet, this man is a predator of human souls; he looks for people – female, male…it doesn’t matter - to accommodate his hungers.  In the film’s hauntingly distressing opening scene we see Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender) in a Manhattan subway.  He locks eyes with a beautiful stranger.  His piercing stare commands interest from the woman and she smiles back.  His expressionless response to her advances seems more cold and uninviting by the minute.  Just as they are about to both leave the subway he orchestrates a small moment where he can make physical contact with this woman, who happens to be married.  The train stops and both exit, but in the mass of humanity that leaves and enters the subway car, he loses sight of her.  He becomes agitated, like a voracious animal that has just lost his meal for the day. 

Brandon’s life is a hollow and desolate shell of self-containment.  He has no room for male friends, girlfriends, or long-term commitments.  His apartment is so bare, so white, and so ultimately sterile that it might as well be a hospital wing.  His work life is also largely unfulfilling, outside of it providing him with a means to support himself (the screenplay does not really specify what he does because it does not really matter).  His daily grind both at home and at work involves him constantly thinking of ways to feed his shameful desires.  When his office computer is taken from him for virus-issues (linked to his endless surfing of porn on it) he goes to the washroom to masturbate.  When he wakes up alone in the morning he masturbates in the shower.  When he does manage to find satisfaction with others it's usually in the form of hookers or one-night stands.  At one point when he can’t have a woman he settles on a man, not because he’s gay, but more because when simply does not care who facilitates his needs.  He loves no one person in particular; people are just necessary tools to him. 

Just when Brandon’s urges are getting out of control, his semi-estranged sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan) arrives at his soulless apartment in need.  She too is troubled and has no where else to turn to in life outside of her brother, and the script is compellingly ambiguous as to their past, the nature of their estrangement, and to how they feel for one another beyond the normal sibling relationship (they have, for example, no problem seeing each other naked, which potentially hints at low key incestuous feelings, but they are never overtly dealt with).  If anything, Brandon and Sissy respond to one another more as a damaged and fractured married couple than as brother and sister, and as Sissy imposes herself on Brandon’s clandestine world of Internet porn, prostitutes, and flings he begins to emotionally unravel.  Like most addicts, maintaining his private addition becomes really hard when a family member or loved one lives with you.  



This is the second film for the unfortunately named Steve McQueen, following up of his astounding debut film HUNGER (also starring Fassbender), the 2008 story of the real life IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands, which I proudly placed on my list of 2009’s 10 Best Films.  What’s so unmistakable is how McQueen taps into the unrelenting bleakness and nihilism of his subject matter: In HUNGER McQueen intently focused on Sands' uncompromising abuse of his body during his prison hunger strike, and he did so with unflinching sentiment.  In SHAME McQueen once again is attracted to the way men hellishly mistreat themselves.  Bobby Sands was addicted to going to any depth for his socio-political cause; Brandon, likewise, will do anything to appease his desires, even if it means the slow implosion of his mind and soul. 

McQueen’s minimalist aesthetic technique only accentuates the austerity and decay of Brandon’s world.  He opens the film on a static shot of Brandon – alone in bed – that seems to go on forever, but is crucial to emphasize his pain and loneliness (the sex addict’s world is one of damning solitude).  Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt uses chilling grays, blues, and grim colors to paint Brandon’s Manhattan surroundings as one of harsh and foreboding moral unease.  There is one scene that’s a standout as McQueen lets his camera linger in one long unbroken shot: Brandon allows himself a rare evening of intimacy with an attractive co-worker.  Breaking up the scene into the obligatory master shot followed by fractured close-ups would seem like the norm here, but McQueen is a more intriguing auteur for how he just places the camera on this pair and allows us to spy on them like fly-on-the-wall voyeurs.  The uneasy intimacy that McQueen derives from this scene allows for viewers to see what a hopelessly ineffectual being Brandon is at normal courtship; It’s painfully distressing to endure.  

I thought that Michael Fassbender gave one of the greatest film performances I have ever seen in HUNGER as Sands, and his ferociously raw work in SHAME is bravura compliment to that film.  Not only does Fassbender have to strip himself down (emotional and physically) in ways that few other actors would, but he often has to relay – usually just with his eyes, face, and posture – what Brandon’s agonized life of giving himself over to his addiction 24/7 has become.  His performance is fearless, utterly committed, and drained of humanity; when he has sex with multiple partners at once – in a scene that probably secured the film’s NC-17 rating - McQueen squares in focus on Fassbender’s face.  Brandon's expression is not one of euphoric joy, but of pulverizing guilt and angry repugnance: this is sex of the most dirty and un-erotic kind.  How the actor did not get nominated for an Oscar is one of the Academy’s most unflattering errors of judgment. 

There was also no awards circuit love either for Carey Mulligan, who gives an equally unnerving performance as Brandon’s perpetually needy and vulnerable sister (she’s a lounge singer that, in one moment, engages in arguably the slowest rendition of “New York, New York” that cuts right to the whole film’s miserable and agonized core).  SHAME is a truly hard film to sit through: it’s not only one of the most starkly candid and ominous explorations of addition I’ve seen, but it also does not have time for any tidy or cozy conclusions.  When Brandon has let his ravenous craving for sex truly get the better of him at great personal costs, you gain an impression that he may finally be acknowledging that he has a severe disorder, but we are left with the aching and ambiguous sensation that his destructive patterns will just repeat themselves.  The film’s final moment sees Brandon finding himself on a subway and locking eyes yet again with the same woman as before and again looks just as resolutely passionless.  Something tells me there’s no saving this man.  

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