Movie review – Shame
Willpower is a trait which seems to fascinate British writer-director Steve McQueen. His début feature, the morbidly compelling Hunger, focused on an abundance of the stuff, detailing the ultimately fatal hunger strike of IRA supporter Bobby Sands in 1981. McQueen’s second feature, the similarly simply-titled Shame, casts its lens upon a fictional creation: Brandon Sullivan, a man whose willpower has been helplessly overrun by an addiction to lust so strong as to disable his ability to act rationally – the id to Sands’ ego, to put it in Freudian terms.
The similarities between the two films extend beyond that – both star Michael Fassbender in the lead role, on both occasions essaying a man of terrifying charisma, both feature sparse dialogue, both create unflinching portraits of their subjects, and both are underscored with McQueen’s directorial signature.
For much in the same way that Hunger is more about unwavering dedication than malnutrition, Shame is about uncontrollable addiction rather than sex.
Fassbender’s Brandon is undeniably addicted to carnal pleasures: a successful career as a young executive in an unspecified – but implicitly hip – firm, he possesses a ruthlessly effective ability to pick up attractive women (enhanced by the Irish-German actor’s almost equine handsomeness) which he deploys frequently. His ardour is Patrick Bateman-esque in its unquenchableness; when overwhelmed by his need, Brandon will call a prostitute or look at porn websites to satisfy his limitless libido.
When his flighty sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) needs a place to crash, she calls upon her well-to-do brother to help, and he reluctantly lets her crash at his minimalist, tacitly expensive bachelor pad. She’s his opposite in every department – a musician with garish dress-sense, she wears her eccentricity on her sleeve while her brother lets his true colours wash away on the exterior, fastidiously dressing in faded browns and greys while his blood courses hot and red and full of barely-concealed lust.
Character-wise, these two are the only central roles, supported well by James Badge Dale as Brandon’s lecherous boss who relies on Brandon as a wingman and thus overlooks the contents of his work computer’s hard drive, and Nicole Beharie as Brandon’s comely coworker Marianne, with whom he becomes increasingly intrigued.
Indeed, McQueen’s film really doesn’t concern itself with plot. Much like Hunger, it’s a character analysis as much as a film; Fassbender is nothing short of sensational, his piercing gaze and silently boiling desire practically scorching the edges of the screen in an awards-worthy performance (though, given the film’s subject and style, it’s unlikely to get one). Mulligan adds telling tics to Sissy, suggesting not only a murky past history between herself and Brandon, but also a depressive streak which she struggles to keep in check; it’s a classy, subtle display, perfectly meshing with McQueen’s auteurish style.
So what is the film actually like, you wonder? Genuinely, it’s difficult to sum up. Cyclic in its portrayal of a man overcome by desire, McQueen’s movie firstly ensures that no holds are barred in his depiction of the act which so mesmerises Brandon. However, his camera is observant rather than voyeuristic, catching shadows across writhing figures and silently capturing flurries of sexual activity, highlighting the primal nature of the act itself. There’s a nascent fury in Brandon’s sexual appetite, shown not only through Fassbender’s impressively unflinching performance but in the nature of the sex itself: it’s a release, a means to an end rather than the smooth, soft-edged intercourse of Hollywood movies.
That said, there is an awful lot of sex in Shame. This isn’t surprising, given that Brandon’s entire life is spent in pursuit of it, but suffice to say this isn’t a film to see with your mum. As his need becomes increasingly feral, Brandon becomes more brazen, and less interested in how he attains that which he desires.
Shame is unquestionably a brave film. Yet, unlike Hunger, this feels more like a visual essay than a motion picture. McQueen’s directorial style – frequently using minute-or-more length single shots, focusing on the grubby corners of the world and displaying a portrait painter’s eye for capturing faces – is commanding at times, but here it sometimes dances too freely. A sequence wherein Mulligan sings a haunting, haunted version of ‘New York, New York’ seems to strive too hard for the virtuoso, and begins to grate a little. The writer-director again draws magnificent performances from his leads, and he has a knack for finding filmic faces, but there’s a limit to how much posturing and subtext anyone can absorb.
For Shame‘s greatest weakness is also one of its strengths, if you’ll forgive the paradoxical statement. Its intellectualness is insightful at times, implying vast amounts of detail in simple, long shots, but also weighs on the film at times, almost dragging the movie into self-importance. The damagingly circular nature of Brandon’s life, interrupted as it is by Sissy’s intrusion, is mightily intriguing and offers a genuine, unvarnished look into sex addiction – a term tellingly tacit in the film itself – but at times falters under its own weightiness.
Is it worth seeking out? Absolutely. Does it deliver moments of breathtakingly fluid filmmaking? Certainly. Yet Shame also sometimes suffers from that most arthouse of problems – being too damn clever for its own good. A film that feels like a terrific subject for an analytical essay, but surrenders too much celluloid to exhibition over exposition.
Verdict: McQueen’s sophomore film is too strong to be called a slump, but sags too often to reach Hunger‘s heights. It definitely merits a trip to the cinema and its lack of leeriness is commendable given its subject matter, but ultimately, Shame, like its protagonist, could do with a little more heartbeat under its magnificently sculpted skin.
Luke Grundy is a fervent assimilator of media living amid the bright lights of London, England. If he’s not watching films or listening to music, he’s probably asleep, eating or dead. A writer, journalist and musician, he is the creator of movie/music blog Odessa & Tucson and lives for epistemology.