Most of the press about the seedy drama Shame has centered on the exhibition of star Michael Fassbender’s manhood, hence the NC-17 rating shackled to the film. Director/co-writer Steve McQueen, who teamed with Fassbender on the riveting Irish hunger-strike drama Hunger, decided against recutting his film for a more audience-inclusive R-rating. The Fassbender penis cannot be cut (draw your own circumcision conclusions). All of this fuss over seeing a penis onscreen seems a little ridiculous and immature. It just seems silly to censor a story about sex addiction by being coy with the appearance of the male anatomy. If they gave awards for onscreen penis performances, Harvey Keitel would have gotten a lifetime achievement award years ago. For all the physical nakedness on screen, when it comes to compelling characters and a story, that’s where Shame goes limp.
Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender) is a high-powered New York City businessman working in a high-powered office doing important business stuff. At least, that’s about the impression the movie gives. What makes Brandon tick, though, is the biological highs of giving in to his carnal desires. He is a sex addict. He has sex daily, some with women he picks up, some with prostitutes. He has a mighty stash of pornography and his work computer is filled to the brim with smut. Brandon’s world of empty physical pleasure is interrupted when his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), drops by to stay a while. She’s a needy, emotionally troubled woman, the kind of girl that gets into bed with her sex addict brother to feel some kind of warmth. Sissy drives Brandon mad, a madness that not even meaningless sex can cure. When sissy sleeps with Brandon’s married boss, his life becomes even more hectic. Perhaps brother and sister aren’t far off in their dysfunction.
What’s most shocking about Shame is not the explicit sex scenes or the full-frontal nudity (sigh, another reason to hate Fassbender) but what a shallow move this is. From beginning to end, everything in this movie is surface level. We don’t get to know anything about Brandon except for his expensive interior decorating. Ooo, he has a fine collection of vinyl, it makes perfect sense that he would be a sex addict now. The movie is filled with joyless sex, but just because there’s a lot of it, and the camera takes time to show Fassbender’s remorseful expressions mid-coitus, does not mean we have approached anything introspective or revealing. The most we learn about Brandon is that his longest relationship lasted four months. When Sissy comes to crash with her big bro it seems to unnerve the man. Why? Is it because her emotional neediness holds a mirror up to Brandon about his own broken behavior? Is it because she’s the only person in his life he has some relationship with and he wants to sever this, to cut him off completely from feeling anything? What has caused both of these people to become so dysfunctional? What about their parents? Your guess is as good as mine. McQueen and co-writer Abi Morgan (The Iron Lady) cannot be bothered to shed light on their characters. This must have been the easiest movie in the world to write, as well as one that almost fulfills some sort of filmmaking exploitation dream (“No no, we’re doing a serious art movie. Now ladies in this scene you’ll be engaged in a threesome for an exhausting amount of screen time. Make sure to lick those nipples like you mean it”).
Because of the narrative shortcomings, the film can grow rather tedious. You never get a real sense of sexual addiction. Just because we watch a guy have sex with strangers, prostitutes, and watch a lot of porn does not mean we are any closer to understanding his urges and compulsions. There’s one brief moment where McQueen seems to communicate Brandon’s thinking, as the camera cuts between sensuous close-ups of a female officemate (Nicole Beharie). This technique is used too sparingly, though, and we’re left to just assume, “Oh, this guy has just gotta have it.” I would have greatly appreciated McQueen taking a more assertive role in communicating the mindset of his main character. Let’s get into his head, let’s see the world the way he does, let’s through the power of editing feel the gnawing craving for physical release. There is one terrific scene during the opening where Brandon and a woman on the subway seem to be communicating a shared desire simply through careful expressions and body configuration. It’s the one scene in Shame that feels like we’ve gotten a peak into Brandon’s world. Instead, the majority of Shame is far too cold and clinical, watching Brandon’s self-destructive behavior from a safe distance like we’re afraid of catching something. I get that all of the onscreen sex is supposed to be seen as unsexy, but that doesn’t mean we couldn’t have followed Brandon’s point of view deeper. Just following a character’s POV is not the same as consent of their lifestyle. McQueen’s camera favors pretty long takes that voyeuristically eavesdrop on his characters, creating a sense of reality that can become ensnaring. I wanted to break free from a near five-minute take filmed from the back of Brandon and Sissy’s heads while they sit on a couch watching, in a strange moment of public domain access, a cartoon from the 1930s. McQueen’s film almost feels like a bait-and-switch bauble, promising the audience the seedy perversions of a man dominated by his uncontrollable desires, and then just delivering a guy who speaks little and jerks off at work a lot.
From an acting point of view, the lone saving grace of Shame, both Fassbender and Mulligan give captivating performances. Fassbender has had an incredibly varied year performance-wise, posing as Rochester, Magneto, and Carl Jung (one wonders what Freud would make of Brandon). The steely actor has a commanding presence and he’s able to reflect a burning intensity with the power of his eyes. Brandon, on the page, has about maybe 100 words of dialogue, so much is left to the actor’s fluid imagination, and Fassbender makes his character compelling to watch, at least for a while, despite the fact that the screenplay does not give him a compelling character to play. Mulligan (Drive, Never Let Me Go) is becoming rather adept at playing sad-eyed Kewpie doll women. Her character has a bit more to say in Shame, a girl trying to connect to the only family she has left, a brother who wishes to cut himself off from all feelings. The movie is at its best when these two are onscreen together. And for the horndogs out there, Mulligan matches Fassbender’s “I’ll show you mine” dare and delivers the full-frontal goods as well.
Shame is a sexually frank movie that seems curiously tight-lipped when it comes to character and plot. It’s filled with body parts but rarely do those parts assemble into a character. The movie is all surface, shallow and repetitive, and if that’s meant to communicate the self-loathing nature of its main character then what a strange mission that McQueen has achieved. The movie is flat, tedious, and distant, too timid to go deeper with its characters and their compulsions. I want to see Brandon’s personal and/or professional life suffer because of his addiction. I want to see the struggle to keep the urges at bay. I want to see Brandon hit rock bottom. I want to feel his desire to change. But we get none of this. Shame ruefully takes its narrative cue from Brandon, which means it’s a whole lot of nothing in between bouts of meaningless, empty sex.
Nate’s Grade: C