Tuesday, November 15, 2011


Harsh and cold, brittle and fascinating, Shame, the controversial, newly instated NC-17 second feature from British filmmaker Steve McQueen is a haunting experience, mostly due to the stark realism that grounds its intense nature.  Yet for a film that dives into human sexuality with such a brisk nonchalance, it's easy, if perhaps slightly false, to call a film like this titillating, or exploitative-- a matter of which the misguided prudes that make up the Motion Picture Association of America, or many regular filmgoers themselves might struggle with.  For this is a movie; and a specifically grown-up movie, about a man with an unhealthy sexual addiction-- one that prevents genuine human contact of nearly any kind-- with friends, family, much less potentially solid suitors.  What matters and makes the film a unique and interesting slice of cinema is the humanity and non-judgmental ques the director gives his actors, and the nakedly expressive performances that arise from it...so much so that the heavily hyped nudity of the picture feels so much of an after-thought after the film is completed, and lingers and questions and builds from whatever you bring to it, and take out of it.  Much like McQueen's first feature, Hunger (which centered around the real-life hunger strike lead by IRA prisoner Bobby Sands), Shame is bold, yet quiet...propulsive, but controlled...interesting and unsettling and difficult shake, in spite of and because of its flaws.  In short, it's a film that may gain notoriety due to its dangling body parts, but it's a haunting feature that matters.

The hero of sorts is Michael Fassbender, who got his big breakthrough with Hunger a few years back and was awarded a richly deserved Best Actor mention at this years Venice Film Festival for Shame.  He plays Brandon, an Irish-born corporate swell in Manhattan, and the first beats of the film reveal his unhealthy sexual routine, consisting of online pornography, prostitutes, regular hook-up girls, all the while maintaining his quiet, easy-going self around drinks with his co-workers.  It's an uncomfortable rut from the start, and the quick entrance of his wayward younger sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) shifts and slowly starts to mess Brandon up ever more.  While their backstory is never explained, the notes and disconnection between Brandon and Sissy is obvious and destructive.  Sissy is a seen at first as a charmingly flaky free spirit; she could easily be a token girlfriend part in a silly romantic comedy, but she's just as damaged, and the ebb and flow of their relationship is part of the complicated, but spellbinding achievement of Shame.  He, the tightly wound introvert trails off for anonymous sex and inappropriate self-love (or hate), while she is more the outgoing, impulsive type who leaves her vulnerability to the stage, as she is a wannabe lounge singer.  There's an eerily striking early scene where Sissy performs "New York, New York" in a slow manner that serves both as wake-up call and cry for help simultaneously for both her and Brandon.  That the scene is shot in a nearly unbroken take adds to the raw vulnerability.

McQueen's slow moving camera and tight shots of his actors inform the tension and work almost as another character altogether, exposing the actors in a way that would feel almost voyeuristic if it weren't grounded in so much reality.  For it's really a rare film that pounces on the darker aspects of human behavior, and characters both fully formed and still strangely kept at arms length; the closer more personal scenes with Brandon and Sissy linger because of the things not said, and the distance between them.  The game changer that eventually spirals Brandon further down his destructive path is one that seems, at first, entirely throwaway.  He's chatted up and hit on by an attractive co-worker (played with graceful humanity by Nicole Beharie) and the two go on an actual date; something entirely foreign to Brandon as his fiddles and fuses while trying to make conversation and put aside his own baggage he's so eager to dispose of.  The scene itself is rendered with acute precision-- McQueen this time pulls back his camera, as Brandon struggles, as he's knowingly aware that he may have met a good one and is fearful of what to do.  The only caveat to this rich scene is a stink of misjudged comedy that throws the rhythms off the alluring duets of the actors.

In the end, Brandon succumbs to his nature in almost excruciating sequence of hitting bottom.  It's masterfully shot in pieces, for the audience to link what happened when, and while thankfully it doesn't quite have the over-the-top Lost Weekend feel, it's unblinkingly terse.  Fassbender is nearly impenetrable, distilling such a clear authority over his dark character, that when he unravels in such naked abandon, it's heartbreaking and exhausting.  To his and the films credit as a whole, Brandon is never presented as a glamorous ladies man, nor a charming cad, but something altogether more haunting and human: a sad, lonely man who long ago disconnected himself from everyone-- casual sex is the only way he can express himself with another person, forgotten the rhythms and joy of intimacy.  That Fassbender is also such an endearing and charmingly expressive performer, with movie star stature makes the transition all the more unsettling.  Mulligan nearly matches Fassbander, as does many of the other nameless supporting players, most pop up for a scene or two of anonymous pairing.  McQueen makes the demanding nature of the story explicit on everyone, including the audience.

But that's also the wonder of a film like Shame, in that even under such strict demands, it manages to be alive and exciting at the same time for the that patient, grown-up moviegoer.  And for a feature called Shame, there's never that judgement expressed on its characters, that's all internal-- Brandon is ashamed of himself.  And moreso for a movie that's so rich in substance and mood, it becomes more and more interesting when the film slightly goes astray and loses itself every once in a while, for unintended histrionics in a feature so painfully raw are quickly grounded by the steady hand of the actors and McQueen's grimly beautiful camera.  A-

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