November 14, 2011 § Leave a comment
Written by Abi Morgan and Steve McQueen
Directed by Steve McQueen
Starring Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale and Nicole Beharie
Addiction takes many forms, one of which is an addiction to sex. Many people don’t see how one can be addicted to sex, because it’s a natural, zesty enterprise and so for people who appear to have too much sex or show too little discrimination in choosing who they partner up with and how frequently, others can sometimes write it off as many things except classic addiction. Steve McQueen’s latest partnership with rising star Michael Fassbender will definitively quash any and all doubt as to how sex can be as debilitating a habit as heroin or meth.
Fassbender is Brandon, a well paid corporate something or other. Apparently he is quite good at his job, as we’re told by his buffoonish, married womanizing friend and boss, David, played to scene stealing perfection by James Badge Dale as the kind of obliviously brazen cad who would make for the lead if ‘Shame’ was a romantic comedy rather than a serious character study. Dale is the Michael Bay to Fassbender’s Terrence Malick. They actually share the same machine gun strafing pick up tactics, but with a different mindset about their goals. It’s an interesting, obvious contrast that McQueen plays as subtly as possible.
Brandon isn’t a lothario, he isn’t suave or debonair, he’s sex incarnate. It’s all he thinks about it. It doesn’t appear to pleasure him, it’s an impulsive act of self-hatred and indifference. His actions are never presented as dangerous (the film doesn’t address the STD risks of his behavior) but literally a shame. McQueen wants us to see a man who is embarrassed about his problem and debilittated in many other emotional and social ways. He’s a functional addict. It’s a brilliantly subtle depiction, particularly given the substance of choice, as it has no obvious physical traits like syringes or ‘dealers’ to show how far the character has fallen. It’s a non-judgmental portrayal that still acknowledges the unhealthy nature of his actions, particularly by choosing a classically attractive lead, making his addiction that much more tragic and human, since he has no excuses and thus sympathy can only be found in grayer areas by his portrayal.
McQueen’s film is at its most vibrant and memorable during his uninterrupted takes, times we’re not given breaks through cuts or different angles. Fassbender’s abilities as an actor are in rare form as Brandon’s awkward and undeniably alluring nature clash to full effect.
McQueen is able to present Fassbender’s character with a combination of uncomfortable intimacy, expressing no qualms about showing Fassbender’s body in all its naked truth, from his skinny frame to the occasional appearance of his penis as he paces around his apartment naked in a morning ritual of guilt and OCD, playing an old message on his answering machine by his sister, Sissy, (Carey Mulligan) with McQueen acknowledging a concern for the character’s well being as we can see in Fassbender’s eyes a tortured man who wishes to be normal.
As a co-worker (Nicole Beharie) interested in Fassbender, Nicole Beharie makes a star-turning performance in a mature depiction of someone trying to be comfortable with a person they are attracted to but don’t understand. It’s an understated performance that is as naturalistically casual as Fassbender’s performance is awkward.
The other woman throwing a monkey wrench in Brandon’s well constructed façade of professional success and hidden demons is his younger sister Sissy, who shows up unannounced, crashing on Fassbinder’s couch and generally turning a mirror on his problems. She’s there ‘on tour’ getting little singing gigs at clubs, though it’s clear she has no real money or prospects. The one scene showing her at work is magical, expressing the history between the siblings without any dialogue and very little action. McQueen’s film is once again at its strongest when layers of character development and back story are conveyed through their expressions and actions rather than dialogue. McQueen’s brazenly direct approach elevates these scenes beyond exposition into interpretation.
Mulligan once again proves herself to be our greatest rising talent amongst young actresses by shedding any and all of the teenage naïveté displayed in An Education to believably portray a young woman in full control of her sexuality and complicit in her own forms of self-destructive behavior.
As Shame comes to a head, McQueen hints at the character arcs and satisfying catharsis we’ve become accustomed to in most films, without playing us for the fiddle by adding any unnecessary twists or self-congratulatory nuance to a story that is so strong because it’s played in such a straight forward manner.
The ending speaks volumes as to the bravery of the performances and the story, as well as McQueen’s willingness to let logic and time tested human nature trump idealism or melodramatic hyperbole. There are dramatic signposts, things happen that were foreshadowed, but as the final credits role onto the screen and we leave Brandon’s world of tortured pleasures, we’re left with a definitive answer by his character about where his life has been heading and what he can do to change, but not the result of this newfound perspective. It’s a nice question mark that makes the film worth revisiting, particularly with the perspective of an initial viewing and time to reflect, not unlike the act upon which the film is based.