Film Review – Shame

Shame Movie PosterIn modern society, technology has made privacy something of a rarity. Even if you choose not to participate in the hubbub of social networking and other various internet activities, chances are something about you is somewhere online. Privacy is something society has cherished for a long time. The option to intermingle with others but be able to always retreat to where one is not seen by anyone is to some societies just as important as it is an enigma to other societies. In privacy is where we can be who we feel we really are, without the judgment of others; where we can indulge the desires we feel might be deemed shameful by the people around us. In artist-turned-director Steve McQueen’s latest film Shame, he turns the camera’s eye on this concept and what happens when the privacy we rely on to indulge ourselves is stripped away.

Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender) is an Irish-born American who immigrated with his family when he was very young. Living in New York and working as a business professional, Brandon has crafted a private life that very much feeds his innermost desire: sex. From prostitutes, to random encounters, to pornography, Brandon is obsessed with and addicted to sex. He shapes his life around it. However, in a world growing more rapidly towards an interconnected digital society, a completely private life is not so easily accomplished, as Brandon finds out. It begins with the acquisition of his work computer, with an abundant virus problem. Then it continues with phone calls from his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan), who eventually shows up in his apartment one day, for an indefinite stay. Slowly, Brandon’s private life erodes away, leaving him and his addiction more exposed than it ever was before. Not being able to indulge the addiction forces Brandon to begin to unwind in a rather destructive way.

McQueen has finely crafted a well told tale of a man faced with his own addiction when it’s exposed and taken from him. The atmosphere of the film, to a certain degree, feels like a mixture of Mike Leigh’s Naked and Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream. It’s dark and dangerous, and we’re never sure exactly how a scene is going to be played, to the effect of expecting tragedy at any moment. Ultimately, while the film is not a suspenseful movie, it is tragic. Brandon is not without merit and worth; he’s a character we can easily care about. He’s charming, and cares for others, and obviously has a deep hurt somewhere in him that compulsively pulls him into his addiction. The fact that we like him makes it that much harder to watch as he acts in harmful ways.

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Michael Fassbender is superb in the role of Brandon. He plays it very reserved, but with an inner rage that’s just teeming on the brink of bursting out, and when it does, it is not only frightening but heartbreaking as well, as we don’t want to see this character behave this way. And that, to me, is where this movie succeeds the most. When Sissy shows up in Brandon’s life, we can tell that she, like him, is coming from the same place of tragedy that scarred their past. Carey Mulligan is a pleasure to watch, bordering between adorable, awkward, and downtrodden. All of that can be derived from an equally adorable and awkward moment when she sings a very low-key version of “New York, New York.” The scene doesn’t cut early; instead, it lingers between her full rendition and Brandon, who’s more affected by it then he was expecting. Mulligan, whose version of the song is perfectly fitting for the film, embodies the character to a degree that we, like her, become lost in the moment, regardless of whether she’s a good singer or not.

What is perhaps most affecting about this film is its regard to the consequences of choice. At the beginning of the film, Brandon is riding a subway train when he spies an attractive woman looking at him. They play a game of flirtation, and eventually Brandon attempts to put a move on her. She leaves before anything can go further and Brandon is left to the rest of his life. As he moves from one brief encounter with a woman to another, we begin to see how his choices to get there affect other aspects of his life, which eventually reaches a harrowing climax. After his choices have enveloped him, Brandon is once again faced with the woman on the train, who we’ve learned from a close-up shot of her hand is engaged, and this time she’s more than willing to go off with him. The scene is well used to bookend choice and consequence, and leaves us thinking about the what-ifs long after we fade to black.

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Unfortunately, Shame is far from a perfect film. While it is one of the best films of the year, it suffers from the weight of its own importance. Instead of simply being a character study that allows its players to draw the plot into its own spiral, the plot guides Brandon to an almost overly compulsive degree. We can feel that McQueen and his co-writer Abi Morgan really want Brandon to experience specific things, and at specific times. The end result is a climax that unfortunately I felt offended by. Is what Brandon does supposed to be shocking because of the nature of it, or because it goes against Brandon’s character? That’s a question I don’t believe we’re ever given enough information to answer. Ultimately, Shame is a well-made and emotionally provocative film, that despite its pretenses left me feeling a little unsure of what it was trying to say.

Final Grade: B+


Benjamin Nason is a writer, film-maker and critic from the Pacific Northwest, where he lives with his cat Lulu.

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