Shame Review

(2.5 STARS)

Does a film need a soul in order to be successful? Steve McQueen’s Shame doesn’t have one, but it’s hard to argue that the film doesn’t work on at least some level. The film is colder and more emotionally distant than perhaps any other from 2011, and the way it places us in the head of its main character is both interesting and somewhat frustrating. Michael Fassbender’s Brandon is almost inhuman, and the wall he’s put up prevents us from understanding, feeling, or sadly, caring much about him or the other men and women in his life. Yes, there’s a great amount of skill on hand here, but without a real reason to care, Shame comes dangerously close to not being worth your time.

Brandon is a seemingly successful New Yorker whose life revolves around physical pleasure. He masturbates at work and at home as often as possible, and he has no hangups calling up a prostitute or going the online voyeur route to satisfy himself. Yes, occasionally he’ll go about things the old-fashioned way, but his approach is that of someone who can’t control himself. He’ll chase after an attractive woman on the subway even if she has a wedding ring on, and an office crush will almost certainly turn into something more if and when he wants it to. In other words, Brandon is a sex addict.

His world is turned upside-down, however, when his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), shows up unannounced and in need of a place to stay. Their relationship has some serious problems, but Brandon can’t turn her away. The more she learns about his problem, however, the angrier he gets. It’s not help that Brandon wants—only for Sissy to leave, so he won’t have to tiptoe around his own home any longer.

The lack of a story isn’t Shame‘s problem. There have been plenty of great films with non-traditional narratives in 2011 and other years (The Tree of Life, The Hurt Locker). What hurts the film most is its perspective. We get everything from Brandon’s point of view, and because he’s so disinterested in those around him, we never really get a sense of what makes them tick. Sissy, I guess, is the one character that could have used this the most. She’s very interesting. It’s clear she’s been in some trouble before, that she is trying to make up for some mistakes in the past. She wants Brandon’s love, but why? She’s attractive and a talented singer. He’s physically and verbally abusive toward her, yet she becomes hysterical over the thought of severing their connection. McQueen doesn’t have to spell everything out to us, but he should throw us some kind of bone.

Fassbender, unsurprisingly, is the film’s shining star. I wouldn’t call it one of the best performances of 2011, if I’m being honest. Hell, I don’t even think it was his best performance of 2011 (that’d probably be in X-Men: First Class, oddly enough). But he is very controlled and explodes in anger as convincingly as any actor. In that respect, his performance is a lot like those of Michael Shannon in Take Shelter and Woody Harrelson in Rampart—my two favorite male performances from last year. Those two, I think, are better for the same reason their films are better than this one: There’s something more human and less clinical about them.

Carey Mulligan is also good. She gets as naked as Fassbender (whatever that means). The problem lies with the character, who I’ve already said we don’t know enough about. Despite the focus of the film being firmly on Brandon, Sissy drives the action. There’s not much to Shame without her. There’s also not enough of her in the film.

Anyone who has seen Hunger should know what to expect from McQueen stylistically—long takes, a very deliberate design. This film is full of all that, and it’s hard to fault a filmmaker for anything when they have such a strong eye for detail. But a stronger focus on developing the people in this world rather than the world itself would have done the film a great service. Shame is a unique experience, that’s for sure, but it’s not something I care to watch again, and it’s definitely not something I’d recommend to most other viewers. Give me McQueen’s next film, though. His talent is undeniable, despite his sophomore effort being a disappointment.

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