Director: Steve McQueen
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, Nicole Beharie, James Badge Dale
Running Time: 101 min.
★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)
It's infrequent seeing an NC-17 rating splashed across the screen before the start of a film, but on the rare occasion it happens, it's kind of a big deal. No studio heads in their right minds want to release a film that limits their audience and potential revenue right off the bat, Often the director or studio will give in, re-cutting it for a more respectable "R," as was the case with 2010 Blue Valentine, which featured a controversial sex scene. Steve McQueen's Shame is an anomaly in that it proudly wears its NC-17 as a badge of honor. There wasn't a chance anything with this much nudity and graphic sex would ever receive an R in this country. And we all know why. The MPAA reserves its dreaded NC-17 rating for low budget, independent films with something important to say, while mainstream movies featuring gruesome violence and gratuitous sex for entertainment's sake often get a free pass. Shame is as much about sex addiction as Requiem for a Dream is about drug addiction or Leaving Las Vegas is about alcoholism. Which is to say not much at all. Addictions aren't actually about what they to seem to be about and only the best movies on the subject understand this. It's of little surprise the MPAA once again failed to grasp something called "context," which, in a fair system, would count for a whole lot more when rating a film.
All descriptions of thirty-something New Yorker Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender) would read as "pervert" or "sex addict" when in fact the more accurate description of the protagonist is probably as "the loneliest man in the world." The opening scenes eerily resemble Young Adult as virtually no dialogue accompanies the boring rituals of one person's depressing existence. With a spacious, sterile Manhattan apartment looking as if it's been rented out by Patrick Bateman, you half-expect Brandon to be doing sit-ups and listening to Genesis. Instead, most of his time is spent bringing home hookers and masturbating to internet porn. When he isn't doing that he's roaming the streets for action or mentally undressing a married woman he sees daily on the subway. When desperate answering machine messages from his mentally unhinged, lounge singer sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) begin piling up because she needs a place to crash, before he knows it she's at his door. When their tumultuous sibling relationship resumes and she starts sleeping with his boss David (James Badge Dale), Brandon starts to fly over the deep end, his anger, isolation and addiction consuming him like never before.
Anyone going into this thinking it's a movie that asks us to feel sorry for a rich, successful, handsome guy who goes around town getting laid at every turn is in for a rude awakening. In lesser hands this could have easily been, but in McQueen's it's a descent into emotional devastation. There's very little if any eroticism in any of these explicit sex scenes. In fact, if they're at all thrilling for him, the high wears off pretty quickly until he can get his next fix. Shame couldn't have possibly been a more appropriate title since Brandon spends the entire length of it in a constant state of humiliation and embarrassment. Like when his boss confiscates his computer or when his sister publicly bares her soul with a version of "New York, New York" so out there and emotionally naked, he can't even bring himself to watch her sing. Without fear, she's able to express herself in a ways he's incapable of because of self-doubt and insecurity. His only chance at any true emotional intimacy is with co-worker Marianne (a revelatory Nicole Beharie) but the closer he gets the more difficult it becomes. Sex and love can't possibly co-exist in his world.
That Fassbender wasn't Oscar nominated for this shattering performance is definitely an injustice, though not exactly a shock considering the subject matter. Seemingly coming out of nowhere in 2011, a good case could be made he was the big breakout actor of the year with three wildly different roles in three completely different genres, with this being the most challenging and unforgettable. He doesn't do a lot of talking and the slick suaveness we usually associate with him as a performer is replaced with desperation, hopelessness and pent-up aggression. Add to that the number of incredibly uncomfortable scenes he had to perform and you have a performance that may not have gotten serious award recognition, but will no doubt outlast those that did. Opposite him, Carey Mulligan silences her critics who feel she's only capable of playing "cutesy" by proving she can get down and dirty with the best of them, going down some really dark paths we've yet to see her explore as actress and showing a range most were probably unaware she had. As the loopier half of these dysfunctional siblings, Mulligan plays Sissy as a total train wreck, her toxic dependency pushing all of Brandon's buttons and eventually sending him off the deep end. He refuses to put up with her unless she changes her wild ways, whereas she feels it's his obligation to help in spite of them. They're both right. And wrong. Eventually they'll have to learn to change their ways but the question is whether it'll be too late. The final scene vaguely suggests there could be hope for Brandon. Or maybe not.
Timely and hypnotizing, this is a film that cuts quite a bit deeper than even its most ardent defenders have given it credit for. In a society where we seem as connected as ever in our daily interactions it's easy to forget that we're actually drifting further apart. The scariest thing about Brandon is that we can picture ourselves knowing him and believing everything on the surface seems fine. It isn't a movie about sex, but the loneliness manifesting itself in that addiction. Based on content alone it surely deserved the MPPA rating it got but what's more noteworthy is that the film actually needed it to tell its story and showing any less would almost feel like a betrayal of its purpose. A minimalistic but searing human drama, Shame is too depressing to watch more than once, which shouldn't pose a problem since once is more than enough.