Earlier this month, Jeff and I saw the new film Shame. Shame has gotten a lot of attention because 1) it’s rated NC-17 and 2) it stars a frequently naked Michael Fassbender (or, as me and my girlfriends call it, “the Full Fassbender.”) I’m sure that some people out there will find Shame to be either too shocking or too disturbing or too explict for its own good but you know what? Those people are idiots. Shame is one of the best films of 2011.
(An extra benefit of Shame being rated NC-17 is that I was asked to show ID before I was allowed to enter the theater. Usually, this is where I would do one of my patented “Don’t Tell Me What I Can’t See!” rants but, honestly, I had just recently “celebrated” my birthday and being mistaken for 16 made my day.)
In Shame, Michael Fassbender plays a succesful, outwardly confident New Yorker named Brandon. Though the film never offers up a clinical diagnosis, Brandon is a sex addict who spends his time having anonymous sex with prostitutes, watching pornography on his computer, and apparently masturbating every chance he gets. We discover this via an opening montage which quickly establishes both the pattern of Brandon’s life and that sex for Brandon is more about maintaining order than getting any sort of pleasure. We watch as Brandon awkwardly flirts with an attractive co-worker and reluctantly goes out drinking with his boss and it quickly becomes obvious that Brandon is incapable of maintaining any sort of “real” relationship.
Eventually, Brandon’s life is disrupted when his self-destructive sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) shows up at his apartment and proceeds to move in with him. Though Sissy and Brandon are obviously close, it also becomes apparent that Sissy is everything that Brandon isn’t. Whereas Brandon is rigidly controlled and closed-off, Sissy is erratic and demanding. With Sissy’s arrival, Brandon quickly starts to spiral as his own behavior lurches out of his control, leading to one harrowing night that forces both Mulligan and Fassbender to confront who they are, each in their own individual way.
Obviously, for Shame to work, it has to strike a perfect balance. With this material, it’s very easy to go overboard and come up with something that feels histrionic and false. Fortunately, director Steve McQueen finds that perfect balance. McQueen mixes scenes of clinic observation with almost lyrical montages in a style that reminds one of some of David Cronenberg’s better film.
McQueen’s direction is matched by the performances of Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan. Playing the role of Brandon, Fassbender finds the perfect balance between self-loathing and narcissism and he makes blatant self-destruction both scary and compelling. It’s impossible to imagine this movie working with anyone but Fassbender in the lead role. He has more than enough talent and charisma to keep us watching even when we want to look away. (And, let’s be honest, the fact that he’s naked for most of the film helps too.) As Sissy, Mulligan runs the risk of being overshadowed by Fassbender’s performance but she more than holds her own while paying a character that will probably inspire mixed feelings in most viewers. Debatably, Mulligan gives an even braver performance than Fassbender. It takes guts to be this potentially unlikable on-screen and it takes talent to make us still care about the character and, fortunately, Mulligan has both.
I’ve heard a few people complain about the fact that McQueen declines to spell out any easy motivation for why Fassbender and Mulligan behave the way that they do. I would argue that this is the film’s greatest strength. Any possible explanation that McQueen could have offered would have just served to render what happens on screen simplistic. Ultimately, the characters played by Fassbender and Mulligan are mysteries to themselves as well as to the audience. That said, McQueen does offer up several clues. To his credit as a director, McQueen has faith in the ability of his audience to notice those clues without having to have things spelled out.
After watching Shame, all I can say is that perhaps, in the future, all movies should be rated NC-17.