How much internet porn do you watch? Have you ever masturbated at work? Have you ever had sex with a complete stranger? Please, don’t answer those questions. Just think about them, and think about how you’d feel if someone else knew your sexual secrets. I would guess you’d want something private to stay that way. It’s not the kind of thing you go bragging about, unless you’re Nate. Here’s another question. Why do you think you do these things you do? Director Steve McQueen’s new film Shame boldly explores such questions while detailing the private life of Brandon, a functioning sex addict.
Yes, this film is rated NC-17. It is very sexual, and very explicit. It is not in any way pornographic, but you can’t honestly tell this story without showing a few naughty bits. If you need more details, you can ask me in the comments, but just know what you’re getting into before you take grandma to the cinema.
Narratively speaking, Shame is a lot more straightforward and plot driven than McQueen’s first film Hunger. Hunger was more like an art exhibit than an actual movie, not without merit, but I am definitely a bigger fan of his follow-up feature. The first half hour or so is spent familiarizing us with Brandon’s world. He is a physical creature; Michael Fassbender gives a mesmerizing and tremendously physical performance. He commands your attention in every shot. A lot of the set-up is dialogue free, and Fassbender tells you so much about Brandon with just his body. I was transfixed.
McQueen’s direction helps here as well. The movie isn’t overly ornate, but silent film like in its use of visuals to get inside the story. Like Hunger, there are lots of long drawn out takes. They are never tedious, though. The camera forces you to examine what is happening. You cannot look away until the movie thinks you have the emotion from the scene and the film cuts. The minimal editing is actually quite precise. Standout long shots include an amazing shot of Brandon jogging, and a simple shot of Brandon on a first date, which is actually quite funny.
Brandon’s routine is thrown a monkey wrench when his estranged sister, Sissy, decides to crash on his couch for a while. I’ve heard some debate as to the nature of this brother/sister relationship, but I think it’s pretty clear from scene one that there is something in their shared history that was inappropriate, if not incestuous. Fassbender and Carey Mulligan as Sissy are completely believable as siblings. They get the closeness just right, and then of course go one step past comfortable. The two seem to be locked in the camera frame together, forcibly connected. Mulligan is also great in this movie. She has her own sexual issues, and while the movie never explicitly tells us anything, we infer as much as need be during Mulligan’s slow serenade of “New York, New York” and Brandon’s emotional reaction.
The film climaxes (pun intended) with Brandon out on the town in a brazen odyssey through the city. I’ll withhold the details of his downward spiral. However, I must say my favorite moment is the end of this section where Fassbender shows us his pain during a moment that anyone else would find pleasure. I believe the expression is “fuck the pain away.” Anyways, it should be his Oscar clip.
For a film so unique and progressive, I found the final moments with Sissy to be a bit clichéd. It still works, so who cares, just had to say something negative. I think this film is a powerful examination of an under seen subject matter told with exquisite style. Even if you don’t identify with Brandon, I think there is some part of our id that will sympathize…or maybe I’ve said too much. Fassbender has been so good in everything lately, as has Mulligan, and they both give easily their best performances to date. It’s not an easy film, but I loved being challenged. And all the naked bodies didn’t hurt either.