100- Shame [9.5]
Brandon is a New Yorker who shuns intimacy with women but feeds his desires with a compulsive addiction to sex. When his wayward younger sister moves into his apartment stirring memories of their shared painful past, Brandon’s insular life spirals out of control.
Remember the film that gave you pause for one reason or another? That scene that caused you to stop in a theater or at home and acknowledge: this is why I watch cinema. There were an abundance of times throughout Shame where I paused to think of both the immediate impact it was taking on me, and the likely long-term effect as well. Almost thirteen months ago, I set out to gain a better of understanding of what individual components make for a cinematic opus that can be talked about for decades to come. I considered the hyperbole that comes with reviewing such films, and how it can cause a reader of my reviews to come in to a film with loaded expectations. It’s with that in mind that I claim that it may damn near be a coincidence, but my hundredth film viewed since 1/1/11 is very well my favorite thus far.
There is nothing remotely sexy about Shame; rather, sex is treated as a disease in the respect that director Steve McQueen is not making a judgement, but instead, displaying the ugliness of this particular potential addiction. McQueen operates most poignantly under two parameters: filming an extensive uncut sequence (as in the record breaking sequence in his directorial debut Hunger) and shooting a long scene without dialogue. The opening dialogue free scene of Shame is an examination of the nature of what a shared glance can entail, and it’s the perfect intersection of material and action for McQueen to film. Though not necessarily a complex scene, the audience is given a tremendous amount of visual information.
The morose score in Shame undercuts the implied sadness of the sexual acts depicted throughout. Composer Harry Escott chooses not to overemphasize Brendan’s (Michael Fassbender) plight in a melancholy fashion, but instead accent the lack of joy in the protagonist’s actions. Fassbender’s sickening determination, as well as his understated morbid sexual obsession, is one of the finer acting performances in quite some time. McQueen gives him a tremendous amount to work with, as Shame doesn’t stay in one finite tonality. There are moments of humor in which (aside from Fassbender’s handsomeness) Brendan’s charm is intoxicating to the female opposite of him, but there are also scenes where his fixation is an incredibly ugly and abusive animal.
James Badge Dale as David, Brendan’s sleazy boss, shows more range than I knew he was capable of during his stint in Rubicon. Though a reveal of his character’s background felt like a superfluous detail and misstep, I was pleased to see the opposite side of what Brendan could be. David has virtually the same intentions of Brendan, and yet his execution is seemingly a world away. The viewer is left with the perspective that Brendan is less sleazy since we follow him throughout, yet how do we truly feel about his addiction? It’s portrayed in a complex, often sad way, and still we can see this tortured person as a shallow man.
There’s a tremendous intimacy to Sissy’s (Carey Mulligan) performance of “New York, New York” in a jazz club, though it correlates with Brendan’s unhappiness and detachment to emotion in a chilling way. The arrangement of the song, with its chromatic scales and minor key chord changes from the original version, is almost off putting at first. Like most successful elements of Shame, it threw me for a loop as to what my expectations were when the scene started out. Sissy isn’t just a caricature of depression and craziness in the same way that Brendan is not simply just a sex addict– these are layered people brought so vividly alive by the outstanding performances by Fassbender and Mulligan.
There is a pivotal scene between Brendan and a secretary at his company that exposes the grand difference between pure sex and lovemaking. It is very important to make that distinction, as it is the separation of what informs Brendan’s addiction and what causes him to repel. Prior to that, McQueen shoots one long, uninterrupted sequence at a restaurant. The manner in which Brendan and the secretary’s conversation shifts is almost frighteningly real, and also a thorough examination of the difference in expectations and desires that can exist between two people. Though both characters may want the same thing, the way in which they arrive to their readiness of that conclusion is utterly fascinating. Details such as this (and Brendan’s workday not being complete without the sugar rush of a Red Bull) are part of what make the film so enjoyable.
It’s worth noting that Shame may not have been nearly the monster that it is without Michael Fassbender’s performance. Time and again, he has proven himself as one of this generation’s premier actors. The man is an embodiment of the delicate line between complete subtlety and outwardly expressing a lot of emotion with very little dialogue.
One of the rules I put on this site is that I have the right to revisit a review and change a score or edit as I see fit. It is my sincere hope that I don’t return to Shame and find a need to withdraw one of my strong opinions. Perhaps instead I will find more things to appreciate past my initial viewing and it will truly enter the upper echelon of my film viewing experience.