Shame is director Steve McQueen‘s controversial follow up to his 2008 film Hunger. While Shame‘s subject matter is that of sex addiction it still shares multiple traits with Hunger. Not only in the way McQueen films his movies, but how he translates the mood with long, uncomfortable shots of bleak scenery and characters that are intensified by heavy hitter Michael Fassbender. Shame isn’t an easy film to sit through, but it’s not meant to be. It’s meant to show the real side of addiction in the rawest form and McQueen’s approach teamed up with Fassbender’s skill as an actor makes it one of the most powerful films of 2011.
Brandon (Michael Fassbender) is an addict. His poison is sex and he’ll take it any way he can. He uses sex as a coping mechanism to live his daily life and get through his daily struggles. On the outside he’s a quiet worker; one who goes out with his boss for after work drinks and one who lives in a fancy apartment. Financially he’s a well off individual, but there’s something inside him from his past that’s tormenting him. He continues to live on edge by satisfying his needs with sexual encounters. Sex is his escape and it’s past the point of being pleasurable. There’s nothing pretty about his situation; it’s ugly in its purest form.
Things get unbalanced for Brandon when his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) comes to town looking for a place to stay. She’s attempting to make a life out of music and so far things aren’t working out for her. She comes to Brandon, which not only stirs up past trouble and invades on his fragile privacy, but it also invades on his daily routine of sex, work and more sex. Sex has become a drug for Brandon and like most druggies when you don’t get your fix everything starts to crumble around you.
The longer Sissy stays the more it becomes a struggle for Brandon’s attempt at living a normal life. He tries his best at forming an actual relationship, but even something as simple as that proves to be a real battle for Brandon. He’s on the breaking point and there’s very little time left to save himself from a life of slow deconstruction.
Shame is a heavy film, one that will surely weigh down most film goers. It requires understanding and patience from the viewer. Steve McQueen is a director with a message to convey and he doesn’t make it easy to chew. He comes at you full-force with his films, throwing said message right in your face. It’s up to you as the viewer to figure out if you’re willing to invest in it. Shame is a lingering film that holds onto each and every word that comes out of Brandon’s mouth. It also emphasizes the tone with deliberately long, haunting shots of uncomfortable silences and pain.
McQueen successfully captures another version of New York that has never been displayed on film like this before. New York as a setting is seen through a sharp eye that’s both dark and clean. Brandon doesn’t run down trashy alley ways full of tagged buildings and garbage lying about, instead he runs alongside a cold body of water while looking up at the well-lit skyscrapers. It makes for interesting scenery that ties in with the films central message. The nightlife is integrated with Brandon’s routine jogs in such a calm and collective way. It’s his only soothing relaxation to get away from the burdensome problems he faces and McQueen captures it marvelously. He uses long shots of Brandon peacefully running down the street the same way he uses long shots of Brandon after or before a sexual encounter to really instill an agonizing feeling for the viewer.
New York also helps convey Brandon’s feeling of loneliness. One of the most populated cities in the world has never felt so empty before. New York is empty and hopeless, just like Brandon.
Conveying these powerful expressions is Michael Fassbender, who re-teams with McQueen after the equally important film Hunger. Fassbender opens up completely for McQueen and his performance is engrossing. He bottles up Brandon’s emotions so tightly that you’ll be on edge waiting for him to explode. His past is never fully exposed, but it’s clear enough to paint your own picture. Fassbender continues to prove that he’s one of the finest actors working today and it’s only a matter of time before he gets the Oscar that he so rightfully deserves.
Carey Mulligan plays Sissy with equal amounts of despair. She’s got her own set of life problems, but she at least chooses to open up and share them. Sometimes she lets out too much and becomes unbearable for Brandon and those around her. Mulligan doesn’t provide a performance as strong as Fassbender’s, but that’s because what’s required of her is that of a strong supporting role. She’s an important part of the puzzle, but she’s not the main attraction.
It’s rare that a true artist like McQueen is able to fully express his talent in a film like Shame. The studio, actors and everyone else surrounding the production shows their respect for McQueen and their trust by allowing him to fully make the film he wanted. Shame works so well because of McQueen’s bleak storytelling and Fassbender’s dark and heavy performance. The subject matter isn’t something to be taken lightly. Shame will test you emotionally, but it will reward you with Oscar level directing and acting. It’s not a film that I would classify as enjoyable, but it is captive. It sucks you into the world of Brandon and into the world of an addict. You quickly start to form an idea of how deep addiction goes and how unbelievably hard it is to shake.
Shame – 9/10