UK | 2011 | Directed by Steve McQueen
Logline: A thirtysomething man has his carefully cultivated private life – and sex addiction – disrupted when his emotionally fragile and needy younger sister arrives unannounced.
Steve McQueen’s second feature after the harrowing prison movie Hunger, also starring Michael Fassbender, is just as simple, just as confronting, just as powerful. Whereas religion and survival formed an uneasy relationship in Hunger, in Shame sex and love share the same bed, as entwined as they are at each other’s throats. McQueen co-wrote the screenplay with playwright Abi Morgan. Originally intending to shoot the movie in the UK, McQueen couldn’t get the financing, and instead moved the production to New York City where he shot principal photography in just twenty-five days.
Michael Fassbender delivers a career performance as Brandon, an ad rep creative by day, and a rampant sex addict whenever he can squeeze it in, either masturbating in the office toilets, in the shower at home, undressing strangers on the subway with his eyes, watching live chat sex on his laptop, fucking strangers in alleyways, paying for hookers in hotel rooms, or indulging in random sexual activity at underground clubs. Immaculately presented, smart and charming, but underneath, inside, Brandon is damaged goods.
When his troubled sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) bursts his lifestyle bubble, old wounds are scratched. The audience never finds out their background, but one can assume there was probably abuse. Both Brandon and Sissy have intimacy issues. They have a problem with self-control and self-esteem. A pivotal and key scene has Sissy performing a torch version of New York, New York whilst her brother, and his opportunist boss, sit at a nearby table sipping martinis. A tear escapes Brandon’s eye. Sissy sings with her heart on her sleeve. The scene has more subtext than you can shake an olive branch at.
Shame is a complex portrait of success and failure, a study of human need and desire, of loneliness and despair. Steve McQueen has a spare, yet utterly compelling style. Not much seems to happen, but everything does. McQueen is an actor’s director, but one with visual flair to spare. It’s fascinating to watch a movie so steeped in sex, yet the carnal knowledge portrayed on screen is remarkably refined. It’s intense without being overly graphic, although that said, Shame will no doubt be remembered for Michael Fassbender’s full frontal parade during the movie’s opening scenes.
Raw experience and human frailty, all of it captured brilliantly on Brandon’s face in one of the movie’s latter scenes when he orgasms during a swinging threesome; his face is etched in anguish and his glance barrels down the camera. It’s disturbing and honest, the man’s truth and lies colliding and ricocheting, no happy endings here, joy lies in tatters, the pleasures of the flesh are only fleeting, the repercussions of desperation continue to ache.
Of course there is still the denouement to come, where Brandon’s shame will overwhelm him, and the epilogue where the dark circle comes full. Some truths are hard to bear. Shame is jagged serenity laid bare, bold, and brilliant. There hasn’t been a more profound journey of self-discovery and resignation, captured with such beauty and ugliness, on screen since Mike Figgis gave us Leaving Las Vegas twenty-odd years ago.