Shame December 7, 2016
We all have our vices, our obsessions, and sometimes our addictions to aid us in the grappling with both the world and our psyches. But the protagonist of Steve McQueen’s metallic, detached Shame (2011) has an unhealthy dependency that’s beginning to take over his life. A sex addict unable to go a night without a lay nor a working day without a lunch break supplemented by a porno, he is without much of a life and without much of a sense of self: he only has a sex life and a capable body, everything meaningless unless surrounded by sheets and in the company of a willing woman.
In his past might have Brandon (Michael Fassbender) been a skirt chaser who found a certain sort of manic glee in his enviable ability to seduce the opposite sex. But now past his thrilling twenties and in the grips of a corporate job that’s become flatly routine, being a deadened Don Juan is all he has — mixed with emotional damage we’d be safe to assume is the product of a mangled upbringing, he helplessly finds himself incapable of feeling anything unless it revolves around sex.
And so the bombastic crashing in of his damaged sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) at his New York apartment only heightens the war he’s having with himself. More so emotionally scarred then Brandon is — she has a history of cutting and uses an obnoxious facade to cover up her perennial hurt — Sissy’s presence forces Brandon to come to terms with what he’s become. For the first time in years is his compassion necessary, and for once is there a woman in his life than he cannot abuse and lose.
But unlike most addiction dramas is there never a moment wherein the afflicted protagonist necessarily explici with their dependency. Shame is a character study of such understated disconcertion that, maybe even like a Cronenberg body horror feature, its coldness is both a virtue and a setback. A virtue in its seamless paralleling of Brandon’s own incapability to feel but a setback in its divisive way of keeping us at as much an arm’s length as the women the latter gives himself to and then immediately lets go of.
Clear is that McQueen wants to craft a drama that lines its atmosphere up with its lead’s disconnected view of the world, and in that regard is his co-writing and directing spotless and unnervingly perceptive. But Shame is such a comprehensively unhappy movie that I couldn’t help but distance myself from it for the duration of my viewing — it’s impossible, anyway, to get close to it, to try to understand Brandon and Sissy as much as we’d like. That aloofness, of course, is meticulously calculated. But sometimes Shame miserably sits in front of us instead of coming alive — it is a plateau of gloom, never to be cleansed by necessary catharsis.
An internal battle deciding whether the movie’s deleteriously unapproachable or masterfully observant and knowing of tone overwhelms me, but no hesitation plagues me in the praising of Fassbender and Mulligan. The film finds imperious actors at the top of their game, with Fassbender playing empty with heartbreaking clarity and with Mulligan portraying emotional despondency with the distress of a cat clinging to the skinny branch of a tree that’s inevitably going to give. Additionally is James Badge Dale, as Brandon’s misogynistic, self-centered boss, all too convincingly narcissistic, and additionally is Nicole Beharie, as the love interest Brandon wishes he had but can’t commit himself to, unmistakably tangible.
Perhaps Shame is the kind of movie that initially baffles me but eventually comes to be lasting in the mind, akin to my experiences with The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1986) and Midnight Cowboy (1969). But for now do I figure it to be uninviting and psychologically demanding, flawlessly conceived if a bit hollow. With the performances excellent, though, there’s no mistaking it as anything but a character study that rings with an all too rare credibility. B