Review: Shame



It's a bit early to make Oscar predictions, but I'll make one anyway: Michael Fassbender will not garner a Best Actor nomination for his role as Brandon Sullivan in Shame.

I make this prediction because although Fassbender arguably deserves to win the award for his gut-punching performance, the Academy simply won't go near a film like Shame, a frank, raw and unnerving look at sexual addiction. Of course, plenty of dark films have found Oscar success, as have actors in cringe-inducing roles. But Shame lays bare so many ugly truths about human relationships that to reward its brutal honesty with Oscar gold would be to admit that yeah, human nature really is this messed up.

No, Fassbender and Shame won't be Oscar darlings -- but no matter, because Shame will be this year's most memorable movie. We'll be talking about it and Brandon Sullivan long after we've forgotten the Oscar winners.

Sullivan is a self-loathing mess. He has a soulless, unspecified job at a soulless, unspecified company, the sole purpose of which is to fund his posh, equally soulless Manhattan lifestyle of designer ennui. He attempts to fill the numerous voids in his world with porn and noncommittal sex, indulging his fantasies with cybersex and prostitutes, eyeing women on the subway as potential conquests and picking them up in trendy bars. Beyond the most cynical, detached form of physical intimacy -- and calling it intimacy is a stretch -- Brandon appears to have no connection with anyone. He's fiercely, defiantly alone in a city of eight million souls.

If Brandon's life is empty, at least it's an orderly and routine emptiness. That is, until his wayward, essentially homeless younger sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) arrives unannounced and disrupts her brother's entirely self-absorbed world. Sissy has a talent for singing, if not for solving her many problems. (Her wearily melancholy rendition of "New York, New York" says it all.) Depressed and directionless, she plans to stay with Brandon until further notice, saddling him with her vaguely defined baggage and complicating matters by hopping into bed with his piggishly oversexed boss, David (James Badge Dale).

What follows is a pair of character studies as gripping as any I've seen in years, as Shame shows us the damage done by Brandon and Sissy's inner demons while never quite disclosing what these demons are. Brandon deeply resents his sister for reasons only hinted at; part of Shame's intrigue is that we can't definitively say why he's so angry at her. Is it because she lives a life of mostly self-imposed poverty and expects him to give her free room and board? Probably not -- his animosity seems rooted in something much more psychologically profound. Is he jealous of her ability to form emotional bonds with people (although, no doubt, with the wrong people)? Does he see qualities in her -- self-doubt, among many others -- that he also sees in himself, projecting on her his anger at his own failings? Shame also hints at the ugly psychic aftermath of incest, or that Brandon may be ashamed of himself for finding Sissy sexually attractive.

Again, we're not sure, just as we aren't sure exactly how Brandon came into his sexual addiction. What we do know is that porn and prostitutes don't satisfy him; what he desperately wants is real intimacy -- dare I say romance -- but he's far too damaged to let it happen. In a particularly moving scene, his fear of intimacy is so overwhelming that when he seems to feel genuine affection for a woman, he's physically unable to have sex with her.

Shame captures Brandon and Sissy's downward spirals -- which culminate in a brutal third act -- with ferocity and fearlessness; this often jarring tale is no feel-good holiday film. Given its frequent full-frontal nudity and explicit sexual content, it's no surprise Shame earned a rare NC-17 rating. What is surprising is that for all the nudity and sex, Shame is so thoroughly unsexy. Nothing about the movie feels erotic or exploitative; like Brandon, we experience the sex with a stark mixture of emptiness and bitterness. A film that lays bare so much skin isn't arousing when it also lays bare so much inner pain and conflict.

If Shame is this year's most talked-about film, Steve McQueen is due much of the credit for his take-no-prisoners direction and script (co-written with Abi Morgan). Even in its darkest moments, Shame never blinks or averts its gaze from the unpleasantness; thankfully, it also never insults us with gratuitous feel-good moments, although there is some darkly funny humor. McQueen and Morgan show great finesse at driving home the movie's many points about the nature of human sexuality and emotional need without being exploitative or melodramatic. There is also a striking, dark beauty to some parts of Shame, especially in lingering, dialogue-free scenes where New York is a central character.

Beyond the superb script and direction are Fassbender and Mulligan's endlessly provocative performances. Born in Germany and raised in Ireland, Fassbender completely inhabits the blandly American Brandon, nailing the disenchanted, generically handsome New Yorker's American non-accent and piercing stare. In less capable hands, Brandon could have been a condemnable, amoral, misogynistic monster, but Fassbender makes him a pitiable wreck. He plunges into every flirtation and sex act like a man dying inside.

No less pitiable is Mulligan's beaten-down Sissy, a far cry from her innocently radiant Jenny Mellor in An Education. Sissy's first appearance may be naked in a shower, but through the rest of the film she hides most everything that really matters. In a performance no less fearless than Fassbender's, Mulligan perfectly captures a young woman whose past is mostly a mystery, but whose present is a world of hurt.

Shame is far more than just a story of two damaged people and an astute study of the complicated relationship between physical sexuality and emotional need. In a broader sense, it's arguably an allegory for the nature of human interaction in our cynical, self-absorbed, socially networked but psychically detached times, a cautionary tale about the danger of telling ourselves that short-term thrills are any kind of substitute for long-term happiness. Shame is a deeply and broadly relevant story that begs us to confront the worst in ourselves -- and does so with such stunning power that it's one of this year's best films.

Don,Your review took me


Your review took me places very few reviewers could hope to send me. Although I avoid the movie houses, I may, based on your incisive review, make an exception to see "Shame".

Thanks for your brilliant usual.