Written and Directed By: Steve McQueen
Starring: Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan
"We're not bad people. We just come from a bad place."
When it comes to sophomore efforts there's always that fear that a director won't live up to the same level of excellence achieved in his debut. However, after the 2008 film Hunger catapulted British director Steve McQueen (and his star Michael Fassbender) to stardom, his follow-up film is among the best of 2011. It's also one of the most explicit theatrical releases in years and is bound to stir up some controversy.
Controversy aside, Shame is ultimately a character study, a close look at the isolating nature of addiction. That gradual sense of separation from the tangible and the emotional that is experienced by the central figure in the film is something many can identify with in our current digital age.
Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender) is handsome, owns a beautiful apartment and owes his financial success to his cushy executive job. However, beneath the surface lies a chronic addiction -- one that requires Brandon to constantly, almost exhaustively, seek sexual release, albeit without ever finding true fulfillment. He follows a meticulous, rigid schedule each day -- beginning with masturbation in the shower and ending with picking up a prostitute at night. When his younger sister, Sissy (a wonderful Carey Mulligan) shows up at his apartment after a nasty breakup, she encrouches on his personal space, forcing Brandon to break out of his pattern and come face-to-face with his addiction and obsessive nature. Their relationship is not a traditional one shared between two siblings. With Brandon and Sissy there is an unspoken tension lying just beneath the surface -- somewhere along the way, something happened between them, although the viewer is left without answers which only adds to our unease.
Brandon's lack of real connection with the people around him coincides with the films subtler theme of humanity's gradual loss of basic connection in the modern world. The New York in which Brandon lives is seen as cold and unfriendly, a place filled with concrete buildings and self-involved people. His is a world where the sun never shines and Brandon must go through the motions of interacting with the people he meets in lounges and bars with his egotistical boss (and only friend), David (James Badge Dale), a man who communicates with his own young son via web cam.
Some of the most revealing scenes in Shame are often the ones that require a very limited use of dialogue. In an early scene, we witness the the interaction between Brandon and a pretty woman (Lucy Walters) on the subway late at night. While both ride the train in silence, sitting across from one another, a wordless exchange is passed between them. The scene is astounding in its ability to go through a range of emotions in just under three minutes -- from initial attraction, to flirtation, to devastating regret. It's a shockingly powerful scene that is a highlight in an already excellent film.
Fassbender gives the best male performance of 2011, to date. His Brandon is a man of obsession and desperation and Fassbender is able to convey this through his expressive eyes and quietly commanding presence. Watching him struggle to connect with Marianne (Nicole Beharie), a colleague he asks out on a date, allows the viewer to see another side of Brandon -- the charming man beneath the cold surface is briefly and touchingly revealed. But his attempts at human connection are more often than not in vain. Fassbender's performance is nothing short of astonishing.
Shame hits you like a ton of bricks and sits heavily on your shoulders. It stays with you long after the final credits. It's an absorbing, piercing look at isolation and addiction -- a true work of art that requires more than one viewing, in order to pick up on its smaller nuances. You'll leave the theatre with conflicting emotions -- an effect all great films should have on its audience.
FINAL GRADE: A