After their much-revered 2008 film Hunger, artist-turned-filmmaker Steve McQueen teams up again with rising star Michael Fassbender for an even more daring film. Their latest, Shame, exposes a damaged sibling relationship — plagued by addiction and humiliation — in a revealing, sexually graphic yet restrained fashion that leaves their characters and audience stripped with nowhere to hide.
Shame focuses mostly on Brandon, a seemingly successful but empty man whose addiction to porn, masturbation, one-night stands, escorts and voyeurism leaves him lifeless and unsatisfied. Living alone in his sterile Manhattan flat, Brandon lives a claustrophobic routine. He wakes up exhausted and naked in a rumpled bed, staring off as if he weren’t alive and remains terse and to himself throughout the day. He has a good job doing something we never quite figure out and has very little to say to anyone. It doesn’t take long for us to figure out why.
The film is worth seeing for Fassbender alone, who already magnetized us this year with Jane Eyre, X-Men: First Class and A Dangerous Method. He reveals himself both physically and emotionally for the role, commanding the screen with his extraordinary commitment and natural façade.
But Brandon’s story really isn’t complete until his sister Sissy (Mulligan) comes along looking to crash at his place. Her hysterical presence interrupts his routine and brings forth more passion and emotion than he is looking to host. Mulligan brings force much like Fassbender’s to the screen, pushing her and her co-star to reach new highs and lows.
Living up to its NC-17 rating, the film is recorded in great sexual detail that somehow manages to avoid ever being arousing. Purely a joyless compulsion, sex is not for his pleasure (nor ours), and is instead the fixation that causes Brandon’s inexhaustible anguish. It’s an anguish we never really learn that much about — Shame is more provocative than it is revealing.
One of the film’s major weaknesses and strengths is its vagueness. We are given very little information on the siblings’ background, relationship and suffering. Why are Brandon and Sissy so troubled? The film puzzles us with very little lines that lead nowhere: “We’re not bad people. We just come from a bad place.” At times it feels like the film could benefit from this lack of knowledge, but it never does, getting lost in its own attempts to be more profound that it can handle being.
Sloppy direction and minor contradictions hinder the film at every corner. It’s obvious McQueen has a strong eye for visuals, as some shots are perfect stills and flow eloquently with the chilling score; however, some sequences come across as a student filmmaker’s poor attempt to replicate David Lynch. Shame achieves beautiful rhythm at one moment and then completely misses the mark the next.
Some might be able to rationalize these flaws with thematic reasoning, but they make the film hard to watch when they begin stealing scenes from Fassbender and Mulligan. Then again, this was never really an easy film to watch to begin with.