Words come to mind to describe Steve McQueen’s Shame; words beyond the title such as unrelenting, physical, pain, sex, disposable, disgust, penetration and need. And in those words you will find the story of a thirty-something man with an uncontrollable sex addiction. It’s an addiction he’s neither proud of nor privately denies he has. McQueen explores this world with a script he co-wrote with playwright Abi Morgan, and he is unforgiving in his intimacy with the material. Yet, to call it intimate almost suggests some measure of delicacy, which isn’t altogether misleading, but it doesn’t imply the destruction we bear witness to.
Michael Fassbender starred in McQueen’s debut feature Hunger, which was wrongly ignored by the Academy back in 2008, and he re-teams with him here as Brandon. Blessed with a good job, good looks and a golden tongue (pun intended and not), Brandon seems capable of wooing whatever woman he desires, although he isn’t averse to prostitutes or even lowlier forms of sexual satisfaction.
Brandon’s world is at once contained and chaotic, but he appears to have it managed as he sates his sexual needs with hours of online sex forums, chronic masturbation, prostitutes or a barroom pick-up. However, when his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) shows up unexpectedly after numerous voice mails left unanswered, Brandon’s world begins a slow decline and whether he’ll be able to claw his way out of it is undecided.
Immediately noticeable is the level of performance McQueen is able to get out of his actors based on the material alone. Any actor unwilling to fully commit to a McQueen project would be embarrassed out of the room so they need not apply. Fassbender gave his all in Hunger and takes it even further in Shame, revealing an actor that is absolutely fearless. Above that his performance seems effortless, but I guess once you decide there is nowhere you won’t go there are no avenues in the craft you won’t comfortably explore.
However, with Fassbender this comes as no surprise. In Hunger he showed this was territory he was willing to tread, but a further revelation is Carey Mulligan in a role equally stripped down.
Mulligan’s introduction, beyond the unanswered voice mail, is a fully nude scene as Brandon walks in on his unsuspecting sister in the shower. It’s a scene that’s off-putting for a number of reasons, but primarily the level of comfort the two siblings seem to have being around the other without any clothes on. We already know Brandon is damaged, though not the full extent, but this is the first of many signs there is something not quite right with Sissy and it’s a character McQueen only offers hints and suggestions for along the way as she is just one more layer to Brandon’s increasingly complex world.
Evident beyond the performances he manages, McQueen’s talent as a director is as unique as they come. Shame is a film immediately recognizable as his and that is saying something after directing only two films. His visual acuity and occasionally minimalist approach benefits the story and the performances in ways that give the story added weight and several moments to reflect back on long after you’ve left the theater. Images are burned in your mind whether its the gritting of teeth or the reflection in an earring that tell the story beyond the 99 minutes you spend in the cinema.
Here the culminating moment is a scene with Brandon and Sissy arguing on his couch as an old school black-and-white cartoon plays in the background. McQueen frames the shot perfectly with Mulligan on the right and Fassbender on the left. As the scene intensifies tears begin to fall from Mulligan’s cheek, but more important is that they fall from her right eye. The tears aren’t immediately visible until they hang gently from her chin and roll down her neck. The intensity of the dialogue as read by the two actors is one thing, but this subtle emotional addition speaks volumes.
If I had any complaints it would be in regard to the film’s ending, which I felt took things a bit too far considering where McQueen ultimately leaves off. I wish McQueen had left even more ambiguity to the film’s finale, giving the audience even more to consider while walking out of the theater.
I have to admit, while I walked out of the theater I wasn’t immediately sold on Shame, at least not to the level of respect I’ve gained since and while working through this review. The performances were obviously out of this world, as was the direction, but it was important for me to let this film simmer and stew and let the images and themes roll around in my head and come together even further.
McQueen’s Hunger is an excellent piece of filmmaking, but it’s also a film I would never be inclined to revisit. It’s similarly raw and realistic, but there is a level of emotional connection Shame offers that I didn’t get from Hunger. Despite the disturbing nature of this film I would definitely watch it again, but as much time as I needed between seeing the film and writing this review, I’m going to need even more before I can travel the streets of New York again with Brandon.