Michael Fassbender as Brandon
Carey Mulligan as Sissy
James Badge Dale as David
Nicole Beharie as Marianne
Hannah Ware as Samantha
Elizabeth Masucci as Suited Woman
Lucy Walters as Pretty subway girl
Briana Marin as Cocktail Server
Anna Rose Hopkins as Flirty Girl
Directed by Steve McQueen
Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender) has developed a day-to-day pattern that revolves around his obsession with casual emotionless sex. When his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) turns up on his doorstep, he can’t turn her away, though he realizes her presence is going to put a damper on his sexual proclivities. When he goes on a first date with his coworker Marianne (Nicole Beharie), he also realizes his inability to connect with people in a non-sexual way may make it impossible for him to ever have a proper relationship.
Steve McQueen’s feature film debut “Hunger” changed a lot of people’s impressions of the experimental video artist in the way it covered the hunger strike of IRA leader Bobby Sands with an unforgettable performance by actor Michael Fassbender. The two are reunited for “Shame,” a very different film in many ways, not only due to its modern-day New York City setting, but also because it’s about a fictional character, but one who comes off just as real as Bobby Sands.
We follow Fassbender’s Brandon on his day-to-day routine of casual sex with women he meets in bars or with hookers he hires, his sexual addiction being unquenchable to the point where he masturbates in the bathroom stall at work. In one sequence, he makes eyes at a pretty woman on the subway, who flirts with him then feels guilty when she remembers she’s married (something we know from the ring on her finger).
There isn’t much of a narrative at least in the first half hour which mainly shows Brandon working at his undefined job involving sales or marketing or his time spent in his meticulously white and barren Manhattan apartment. It creates a feel not unlike Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler” as it begins, and things only start getting interesting when his sister Sissy, played by Carey Mulligan, shows up on his doorstep after leaving many frantic messages. This relationship forms the core of “Shame,” because the way they interact makes it clear they have dark secrets from the past that dictates the way they behave. Brandon sees Sissy as an annoyance who makes it impossible for him to stick to his normal routine, which forces him to start thinking about what he’s been doing. Roughly halfway into the movie, Brandon goes on an actual date with his co-worker, played by Nicole Beharie, which ends innocently enough, but it’s a turning point for him to realize he is unable to connect with anyone other than on a sexual level.
This is another daring role for Fassbender, showing his full range as an actor often without saying a word. It’s a testament to McQueen that he’s able to get the actor to expose himself and be captured in so many vulnerable states, spending much of the film naked, either physically or emotionally. Brandon’s not a character who some might be able to immediately relate or empathize with, because how many of us have that level of obsession with sexual satisfaction as this character? Thinking about it hours later, there are aspects of the character that are very typical to New York, going through your day doing your thing with very little concern for those around you or how your actions might affect you. With a short coiffed blonde ‘do, Mulligan is playing a very different character from what we’ve seen her do, as Sissy is quite wild and lively rather than the subdued characters we’ve seen her play before.
After Sissy sleeps with Brandon’s married boss Dave (James Badge Dale), things explode between them, and he goes out on an all-night sex bender that takes the film into far darker territory. Considering how needy Sissy acts and how harshly Brandon tells her off for disrupting his life, it’s somewhat predictable where things might go, but some might find it unsatisfying that so many questions about their relationship are left unanswered.
McQueen is a true visionary of an artist, marrying his stark images with gorgeous music by Harry Escott, and as with “Hunger,” he makes a number of fascinating visual decisions. Many of the longer dialogue scenes are done in one shot, which is impressive enough, but not as much as an impossibly long tracking shot that follows Brandon running through the streets of Manhattan. It’s decisions like these that make the film feel more constructed than other lower budget fly-on-the-wall films. Otherwise, the film moves at a fairly slow pace, something that’s most noticeable during a scene when Mulligan sings a jazzy version of “New York, New York,” and McQueen allows the entire song to play out, something that kills any momentum that may have been established.
Despite all the chatter about the nudity and sex in “Shame,” we should add that we never felt there was anything so graphic or gratuitous it deserves the feared NC-17 rating, nor does anything warrant McQueen having to compromise his artistic vision to avoid it, similar to “Blue Valentine” last year. This is no “Nine Songs” or “Shortbus” or even “Antichrist,” and the biggest shame is that so many people on both sides of the film industry remain so repressed about something that plays a large part in so many lives.
The Bottom Line:
“Shame” may not feel like it carries as much immediate weight or impact as “Hunger” but watching characters like this going over the edge before realizing their life needs to change often makes for fascinating storytelling, and considering how much is left open for interpretation, it ends up being just as thought-provoking.
Shame has its U.S. premiere at the 49th New York Film Festival on Friday, October 7 before getting a limited release on December 2.