Director: Steve McQueen
Writers: Abi Morgan and Steve McQueen
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale, and Nicole Beharie
Rated: NC-17 (graphic sexuality, language)
IMDb and trailer | Official movie site | Film is distributed by 20th Century Fox
Back when I watched Hunger, I recall being extremely moved by both the subject matter and the tragically beautiful imagery from director Steve McQueen. For his second feature, McQueen again tackles a controversial subject and relies on the use images and feelings to capture it.
McQueen wisely uses his star from Hunger in Shame. Michael Fassbender plays Brandon, a successful and attractive New Yorker struggling with sex addiction. What I loved about Fassbender in Hunger was that he really was able to evoke so much feeling without having to speak, something not many actors can do well. In Shame he is able to achieve the same effect, with each look conveying a multitude of emotions.
The character of Brandon lives a fairly routine life. Apart from his seemingly successful career and a normal social life involving having drinks at upscale cocktail bars, we’re shown a more up-close look at his life of a sex addict, a darker side that he shields off from the outside world. He masturbates frequently, constantly looks at pornography, and has sex with girls from the bar to call-girls. While parts of that may sound like the life of an oversexed college student, here it’s anything but funny or glorified.
Brandon’s routine is disrupted when he’s paid an unexpected (and unwanted) visit from his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan). From the moment Brandon plays and ignores messages on his answering machine from Sissy to her arrival in his apartment, we wonder why he’s so heartless towards his sister. As the film progresses, there are hints that they have experienced painful childhoods, though nothing more is ever revealed.
The dysfunctional relationship of Sissy and Brandon is a puzzling one, which leaves us wanting to know more. Every interaction they have, whether it be a look across a room or an uncomfortable heated exchange with a naked Brandon on top of Sissy, we can tell there’s a lot to know. The two actors do a great job of keeping the drama believable and McQueen does an equally great job of not spelling things out for us while keeping things interesting.
Brandon also meets a woman named Marianne (Nicole Beharie) who causes an additional a stir in Brandon’s life. She seems different than his usual encounters. Is he capable of a real relationship? This is one of many questions I asked myself. Between Sissy and Marianne, Brandon finds himself facing some personal dilemmas that we gather he’s not at all used to. The ensuing drama had me feeling all sorts of emotions, but by the end I did begin to feel a little bit of hope.
Most people will be talking about this film for its graphic sex scenes, but the film really is first and foremost a psychological drama. Brandon is a very enigmatic and fascinating character whose every action has our attention. Initially, he kind of seems like a mere pervert, but as the film progresses I really started to realize and try to understand his disease. Sex addiction is often joked about, but if there are people like Brandon out there, I think it’s something that deserves to be taken seriously.
In addition to being psychologically stimulating material, Shame is also superbly crafted in such a way that each scene captures the essence of the characters and their moods. Much like Hunger, Shame doesn’t just look pretty, but the gorgeous shots also say something about each scene. From a simple back-and-forth scene with Brandon and Sissy while Sissy sings in a restaurant, to a tracking shot with Brandon running, I felt closer to the characters without them having to even do much of anything.
Shame does for erotica what Drive did for car movies. While Shame has some otherwise steamy sex scenes, in context they’re rather not sexy at all. The film is about more than the sex, Shame is a character study about a man and his internal struggles. To simply write this film off as an erotic escapade would be unfortunate. While the film is often difficult to watch and leaves us with more questions than answers, it’s a fascinating drama with a lot to appreciate.