A film review by Craig J. Koban February 25, 2012
2011, NC-17, 99 mins.
2011, NC-17, 99 mins.
Brandon: Michael Fassbender /
Sissy: Carey Mulligan /
David: James Badge Dale /
Marianne: Nicole Beharie
I used to incredulously laugh when I heard of cases of people that had sex addictions. This couldn’t be an obsessive and self-destructive compulsion in the same vein as alcoholism or drug abuse…right?
After seeing Steve
McQueen’s powerful, challenging, and unforgettable SHAME I think I may
be changing my tune. The
addict in the film is indeed self-loathingly infatuated with sex and the
always-lingering need to achieve orgasm.
To me, sex should inspire sensations of pleasure and ecstasy; there
is no pleasure in this film’s tormented soul.
This is a pitiful, unfortunate, and sick man that has become
completely preoccupied with lust and the need to feel sexually satisfied.
He does not want relationships or love in his heart; just his
cravings fulfilled. How
could this not be an addiction?
yet, this man is a predator of human souls; he looks for people –
female, male…it doesn’t matter - to accommodate his hungers.
In the film’s hauntingly distressing opening scene we see Brandon
Sullivan (Michael Fassbender) in a Manhattan subway.
He locks eyes with a beautiful stranger.
His piercing stare commands interest from the woman and she smiles
back. His expressionless
response to her advances seems more cold and uninviting by the minute.
Just as they are about to both leave the subway he orchestrates a
small moment where he can make physical contact with this woman, who
happens to be married. The train stops and both exit, but in the mass of humanity
that leaves and enters the subway car, he loses sight of her.
He becomes agitated, like a voracious animal that has just
lost his meal for the day.
life is a hollow and desolate shell of self-containment.
He has no room for male friends, girlfriends, or long-term commitments. His apartment is so bare, so white, and so ultimately sterile
that it might as well be a hospital wing.
His work life is also largely unfulfilling, outside of it providing
him with a means to support himself (the screenplay does not really
specify what he does because it does not really matter).
His daily grind both at home and at work involves him constantly
thinking of ways to feed his shameful desires.
When his office computer is taken from him for virus-issues (linked
to his endless surfing of porn on it) he goes to the washroom to masturbate.
When he wakes up alone in the morning he masturbates in the shower.
When he does manage to find satisfaction with others it's usually in
the form of hookers or one-night stands.
At one point when he can’t have a woman he settles on a man, not
because he’s gay, but more because when simply does not care who
facilitates his needs. He loves no one person in particular; people are just
necessary tools to him.
when Brandon’s urges are getting out of control, his semi-estranged
sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan) arrives at his soulless apartment in need.
She too is troubled and has no where else to turn to in life
outside of her brother, and the script is compellingly ambiguous as to
their past, the nature of their estrangement, and to how they feel for one
another beyond the normal sibling relationship (they have, for example, no
problem seeing each other naked, which potentially hints at low key
incestuous feelings, but they are never overtly dealt with).
If anything, Brandon and Sissy respond to one another more as a
damaged and fractured married couple than as brother and sister, and as
Sissy imposes herself on Brandon’s clandestine world of Internet porn,
prostitutes, and flings he begins to emotionally unravel.
Like most addicts, maintaining his private addition becomes really hard
when a family member or loved one lives with you.
the second film for the unfortunately named Steve McQueen, following up of
his astounding debut film HUNGER (also
starring Fassbender), the 2008 story of the real life IRA hunger striker
Bobby Sands, which I proudly placed on my list of 2009’s
10 Best Films. What’s
so unmistakable is how McQueen taps into the unrelenting bleakness and
nihilism of his subject matter: In HUNGER McQueen intently focused on
Sands' uncompromising abuse of his body during his prison hunger strike,
and he did so with unflinching sentiment.
In SHAME McQueen once again is attracted to the way men
hellishly mistreat themselves. Bobby
Sands was addicted to going to any depth for his socio-political cause;
Brandon, likewise, will do anything to appease his desires, even if it
means the slow implosion of his mind and soul.
minimalist aesthetic technique only accentuates the austerity and decay of
Brandon’s world. He opens
the film on a static shot of Brandon – alone in bed – that seems to go
on forever, but is crucial to emphasize his pain and loneliness (the
sex addict’s world is one of damning solitude).
Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt uses chilling grays, blues, and
grim colors to paint Brandon’s Manhattan surroundings as one of harsh
and foreboding moral unease. There
is one scene that’s a standout as McQueen lets his camera linger in one
long unbroken shot: Brandon allows himself a rare evening of intimacy with
an attractive co-worker. Breaking
up the scene into the obligatory master shot followed by fractured
close-ups would seem like the norm here, but McQueen is a more intriguing
auteur for how he just places the camera on this pair and allows us to spy
on them like fly-on-the-wall voyeurs. The
uneasy intimacy that McQueen derives from this scene allows for viewers to
see what a hopelessly ineffectual being Brandon is at normal courtship;
It’s painfully distressing to endure.
thought that Michael Fassbender gave one of the greatest film performances
I have ever seen in HUNGER as Sands, and his ferociously raw work in SHAME
is bravura compliment to that film. Not only does Fassbender have to strip himself down (emotional
and physically) in ways that few other actors would, but he often has to relay – usually just with his eyes,
face, and posture – what Brandon’s agonized life of giving himself
over to his addiction 24/7 has become.
His performance is fearless, utterly committed, and drained of
humanity; when he has sex with multiple partners at once – in a scene
that probably secured the film’s NC-17 rating - McQueen squares in focus
on Fassbender’s face. Brandon's
expression is not one of euphoric joy, but of
pulverizing guilt and angry repugnance: this is sex of the most dirty and
un-erotic kind. How the actor
did not get nominated for an Oscar is one of the Academy’s most
unflattering errors of judgment.
was also no awards circuit love either for Carey Mulligan, who gives an
equally unnerving performance as Brandon’s perpetually needy and
vulnerable sister (she’s a lounge singer that, in one moment, engages in
arguably the slowest rendition of “New York, New York” that cuts right
to the whole film’s miserable and agonized core).
SHAME is a truly hard film to sit through: it’s not
only one of the most starkly candid and ominous explorations of addition
I’ve seen, but it also does not have time for any tidy or cozy
conclusions. When Brandon
has let his ravenous craving for sex truly get the better of him at great
personal costs, you gain an impression that he may finally be acknowledging that he has a severe disorder, but
we are left with the aching
and ambiguous sensation that his destructive patterns will just repeat
themselves. The film’s final
moment sees Brandon finding himself on a subway and locking eyes yet
again with the same woman as before and again looks just as resolutely passionless.
Something tells me there’s no saving this man.