The sun rises behind the blinds of your apartment. Another day, another chance to find as many ways to come as humanly possible. You wake up to the rumpled sheets and open the curtains and then check your voicemail. It’s your sister. Ignore it and get ready. It’s time for work. You move along again, faking your way through work and polite interaction in order to head out that night and hopefully meet some girl at the bar. Maybe a prostitute or two- god knows that’s easier as long as you’ve got some hundreds they can count and smile at. And if not, you’ve always got the internet and thousands of girls waiting to uncover themselves for you on cam sites and do whatever you want them to. Hell, you’ve been on there so much, they greet you by name.
This is the life of Brandon (Michael Fassbender), an obviously wealthy man from the size and location of his midtown apartment, one who’s blissfully consumed in a life of lust and easy women. Brandon’s the kind of man that charm and seductive skill comes naturally to. A glance, a sly sentence here and there, and he’s at home with another girl. The power of his abilities is shown early on in a silent scene detailing his interactions with a married woman on the subway- she’s hooked by his hypnotic stare, and can’t let go until she dashes off in a fit of regret. Of course, there’s the darker side to it all- his work computer is seized by IT because the hard-drive’s corrupted from all the kinky sites he visits on a daily basis and he pays for sex on regularly- but he seems to have it somewhat under control, and out of the public eye. Brandon deals with his asshole boss, who cruises singles bars with him when they have a big success at the firm, and watches him fuck up with every girl he meets, most of whom eventually come home with Brandon instead, but his boss rarely seems to fault him for it. However, his little world is brought to the verge of collapse when his sister (Carey Mulligan) reappears in his life. She’s always on the run from something, clinging to whatever possible love and attention that she can get from whatever source is available. For now, the object for the love she needs is Brandon, someone who obviously doesn’t want her to be around. From there, we watch two incredibly fucked-up people self-destruct in bathrooms, waterfront hotels, subway platforms and gay bars. This is the dreary New York that Shame takes place in; a place that is full of meaningless sex and tragedy happening around every corner that you happen to walk into.
The second film by the famed director Steve McQueen (and I swear to God, I’ll break some faces if I hear another joke about his name) is much more restrained than it’s predecessor. Hunger relied on the brutality of the acts portrayed in the vicious retaliation to the hunger strikes and Fassbender’s own descent into poor health in order to prove its points, and also to shock the viewer into understanding the dire situation of both prisoner and guard. Shame is that film’s antithesis, relying on the understated implications of a glance or a turn of phrase in order to show Brandon’s descent into his own personal hell. McQueen manages to avoid the trappings a film about addiction would typically have. He never glamorizes Brandon’s actions, and portrays them in an incredibly uncomfortable and disturbing light. It never feels like an after-school special like certain movies do, no matter how cool the production is (Half Nelson being one of the most egregious examples of how this could have gone horribly wrong). The beautiful cinematography, a trait all of his films carry, contains fantastic shots of New York and an incredible understanding of how a movie set in the city should be lit. McQueen’s penchant for long takes is also present, though in Shame, few of the longer shots hit the ten minute mark. One especially heartbreaking fight between Brandon and his sister is captured from behind the couch they’re sitting on- god knows a lesser director would have chopped the scene up into a million different ways, but McQueen relies on our expectations of film language to make the scene incredibly painful to watch. He has an incredible talent for foreshadowing as well, as many of the slight things emphasized early in their interactions build up to the frantic pace of the climax. The subtlety adds up to our collective breaking points, and is essentially responsible for the tension being kept throughout the last half-hour of the film. There’s a disturbed sadness to be found in most frames of the film, but I also should mention that it’s surprisingly funny at times, especially in comparison to Hunger. Frankly, the movie would have been monotonous without these brief breaks of levity, and each of these scenes manages to add another dimension to Brandon’s character.
Fassbender and McQueen make a beautiful pairing yet again, and it’s almost impossible to envision any other actor in the role. There’s one incredibly uncomfortable shot near the end of the film where Fassbender, apparently in the throws of orgasm, stares at the camera with an incredibly pained expression of guilt, showing the first crack of weakness in his otherwise stoic facade. He fully inhabits his role, bringing to life a character that I believe wouldn’t work well on the page. So much of the film’s beauty and horror lies in his performance; earlier this year, I vaguely believed that the Jude Law effect would easily come into play (and by that I mean a popular but still slightly unknown actor appearing in way too many movies in a single year). but he’s managed to avoid that every step of the way. He plays Brandon as a man forced to re-evaluate his life in the light of his sister’s appearance and her failings, and as a monster that eventually attempts to become human. It’s difficult to watch as he fails miserably, and Fassbender sells it the entire third act. Let’s not forget Mulligan, either. Her heart-wrenching, slow-tempo performance of “New York, New York” is a goddamn show-stopper, one that’s provocative and sensational in a way that most of the actual sex isn’t. She plays her part very well, as someone whose eccentricities simply cover up an incredible past of abuse and self-mutilation. The scars on her wrists are mere hints as to the hell of a life she’s had, a cue to the audience that, no matter the smiling facade, her situation will rarely improve. She is human and she needs to be loved, but not like everybody else does, and Mulligan makes this aware through her tears, her laughs and her hysterical fits. The rest of the supporting cast do their jobs well, especially James Badge Dale as Brandon’s boss- a horrible shell of a man who we’re meant to contrast with Brandon- but the real heavy lifting relies on Fassbender and Mulligan, who succeed beyond the wildest expectations of both the script and the audience.
That’s another beauty of the film that I’ve neglected to mention. McQueen only gives us the vaguest of hints why our protagonists are the way that they are- obviously they’ve had some horrible trauma in their pasts, a lingering scar that only results in addiction, mental illness, and mistrust. Brandon and Sissy are presented to us as how we’d see them on the street, or if we’d followed them around for a certain amount of time. This is one aspect that I’d say he’s improved on from Hunger- this film has little of the baggage that followed Bobby Sands around near the end of his life, and the fact that he chooses to avoid any practical explanation is a benefit to both the viewer and the artist. The reveal would be an easy shock, but the subtlety and silence with regards to the past is essential to why this film works, and why it avoids the territory that I defined and explained earlier. It’s an incredibly moral film, but yet it refuses judgement on either of it’s characters and also refuses your pity. I’m interested to see where McQueen takes his next film after seeing this one, because I would love for him to explore similar avenues to this one. He’s an incredible visual artist who knows how to coax amazing performances out of his muse and the other actors, and I hope his partnership with Fassbender lasts for a few more movies.
Shame, for my money, is just as effective as a horror film as something like Contagion. Rather than making you afraid of touching something, you’re made afraid of your own desires to touch someone. I’m sure that most people can relate to the ways that sex is portrayed in the film (one of the other writers and myself freaked out about it for maybe an hour outside of the theater about how we saw ourselves casually reflected in Brandon), especially with the way it’s presented in media these days and emphasized in our culture. God knows this is taken to its absolute moral low, but it’s hard not to see aspects of yourself and the world around you. McQueen has made a beautiful, haunting film about desperate depravity, the desire to find a place where you’re loved, and the lengths a person will go to satisfy and conceal their addictions. At the end, we’re left hanging at the end of a thread, just like our beaten-down protagonist. Can Brandon change? Can we?