Review: Shame (2011)

Director: Steve McQueen

****

When celebrities like Michael Douglas brought their sex addictions to public attention, people sneered. How can you be addicted to a natural process like sex? It’s very simple once you think about it. An addiction is simply wanting too much of a good thing; drug addicts wouldn’t start on drugs if they didn’t derive some benefits from it. For Brandon (Michael Fassbender), Shame’s protagonist, sex has become corrupted and addictive. He’s had too much (or possibly a bad experience with it), and now can’t do without. Like all addictions, sex has robbed Brandon of his dignity and the ability to lead a normal life. It’s too bad that one of the cornerstones of normality is about to hit him like a ton of bricks: family.

Like McQueen and Fassbender’s previous collaboration, the determinedly grungy Hunger, Shame is sold on, and seems initially focused on, its characters’ bodies but ultimately glimpses their souls. Like another infamous New York city boy, American Psycho‘sPatrick Bateman, Brandon has managed his life to such an extent that he appears externally normal, yet finds time for his extracurricular activities. With his life so managed, it is only to be expected that something like the arrival of his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) would throw his life off balance. For a while though, he seems to manage. The first half of Shame sees Brandon indulge his appetites whilst trying to live a life. He’s successful at work and clearly has money but, for all the sexual encounters he has, Brandon is not a people person. His boorish boss David (James Badge Dale) is more wingman than friend, whilst his attempts to form a relationship with a co-worker (Nicole Beharie) prove too complicated. Why invest emotion when cold hard cash will do for a prostitute? Like any addict, Brandon is only interested in the next fix, and when the fraught and childish Sissy disrupts his supply, Brandon finally cracks. Shame‘s second half sees the crack’d Brandon visit Dante’s seven circles in one night, reducing himself to the level of his own lowest instincts. Yes, there’s coitus of all kinds and in all positions, but to focus on it (as many have) is to miss the point. At the centre of this hellish hump-athon is Brandon, slowly breaking before our eyes. Fassbender’s smile has earned him comparisons to a shark, but he is a true predator here. He doesn’t pull women; he hunts them. Yet, we care about him because his perversions rule him, and not the other way round. In the middle of a multi-person encounter, the camera fixates on Brandon’s face as it falls out of realization at how pathetic the moment is. Fassbender excels in bringing soul to the apparently soulless, and delivers plenty here in his best work yet. Mulligan extends her range with the troubled and troubling Sissy, but she’s ultimately just the catalyst for Brandon’s descent and Fassbender’s rise.

McQueen and Abi Morgan’s script is a biting and raw affair in its dialogue, though one can feel the beats of the plot a mile off. Themes of addiction, self-destruction and redemption are nothing new, but the emotion is palpable and raw. Ultimately, we are watching a man destroy his life for nothing, and if that doesn’t elicit your pity, little else will. The New York of Shame looks like it could use a wash, as McQueen presents a city in which one could easily hide an addiction amongst the graffiti and the bright lights. His camera is unflinching in the face of sexual indulgence, but it’s the emotional depths of Shame that will leave you breathless. Sissy reminds Brandon at one point that he’s not a bad person; he just comes from a bad place. Addiction is the worst of places, but Shame charts the journey through the inferno and back with supreme confidence.

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