Shame is a film with a reputation that precedes it. For once, a distributor (the always open-minded Fox Searchlight Pictures) embraced an NC-17 rating, and everyone braced themselves for one helluva explicit affair. Indeed, director Steve McQueen's intention is made clear from the opening shot of Shame, which has Michael Fassbender lying on his back in bed. However, it is not the fact that Fassbender is lying on his back in bed that gives McQueen's intention away, it's his pensive, brooding demeanour that says one thing: this man has a lot of something on his mind. And with the film's reputation as it stands, it is not very difficult to figure out exactly what that something is.
Brandon (Fassbender) is a successful, thirty-something, Irish-born New Yorker who, to put it mildly, has sex addiction issues. In order to indulge in his needs without disturbing the veil of normalcy, Brandon has cultivated a very carefully balanced and guarded private life. However, when his wayward sister (Carey Mulligan) arrives one day, things begin to spiral out of control rather quickly. That's it in a nutshell. However, apart from it being a tale of sex addict woes, Shame is a powerful study of the way we interact with each other. Example? An early scene on a subway train has Brandon checking out an attractive young woman. When McQueen cuts to various earlier (sexually deviant) scenes, you begin to realise that this man is a predator more than anything else. And, being so acutely focused on his prey, his powers of seduction reach a preternatural level, leaving other facets of his personal life to flounder in the background. Apart from the frequent masturbation and intercourse (it's there to tell us he has a problem), the manner in which Brandon interacts with the fairer sex provides a unique take on the varying ways in which we humans interact with one another. The point is hammered home when you compare Brandon's methods to those of his asshole (in a normal way) boss (played cringingly well by James Badge Dale).
What happens when the predator's habitat is disturbed by a baby sister in need of love and a place to crash? Well, a finely honed hunter is susceptible to the slightest of disruptions, and Sissy's arrival is hardly what I would call subtle. She needs love, she needs warmth, she needs support, and what Brandon needs is quite the opposite. This is where the plot begins to thicken, and things get interesting. I will say no more.
I mentioned before that Shame is brilliant at showcasing human interaction, but you would probably have heard by now that the highlight of the film is Fassbender's powerhouse performance. In a career already replete with stellar roles, this one must surely be his best so far. The deep rooted affliction of his character is not easy to portray, and I cannot think of an actor who could do it better. Even more impressive is the way in which Fassbender balances inner torment with the occasional glimpse humanity, letting us know (in the most subtle, nuanced manner possible), that somewhere, deep in that shell, is a human being. That said, Carey Mulligan deserves credit too for her bravest performance to date. She really is well suited to playing the vulnerable types.
Would you ever have thought that Shame would have a soundtrack to remember? It's hardly the kind of movie where you would expect this. There isn't much dialogue to go around (Brandon is a do-er, not a talker), so McQueen uses music (ranging from Harry Escott's rousing score, to Carey Mulligan's delivery of New York, New York, to Blondie) to not only augment the mood, but as a narrator as well (much like in Drive). One of the absolute best scenes in the movie involves music from none other than Johann Sebastian Bach, and a stunning New York nighttime run. Brilliant!
In the end though, despite my anticipation levels, Shame is not a fun movie to watch. I loved the ending, the performances, the cinematography and the music, but somehow it left me feeling a little, well, used. Despite having seen the film twice, I am still trying to put my finger on why this is. View it as criticism if you wish, or perhaps see that Steve McQueen really has succeeded in his goal, whatever that goal may be.
8 out of 10