Shame tells the story of Brandon (Michael Fassbender), a New York businessman with a dark and destructive secret. Brandon is dealing with a sexual addiction, and it’s literally consuming his life. He does have a handful of friends, but they seem to be more co-workers than actual friends. However, beyond those individuals, masturbation, watching pornography online (even at work), picking up ladies and paying ladies of the night seem to be Brandon’s entire life. He has no real connection with anyone despite his overflowing charm and being oh-so smooth with the ladies.
One day, Brandon arrives home to discover that his sister Sissy(Carey Mulligan), who has been trying to contact him for sometime, has come to stay with him. Sissy, a nightclub singer, has a troubled past as well. It appears that she’s a cutter and is more physically abusive to herself while her brother seems to be emotionally abusing himself.
After Brandon takes his boss to watch Sissy perform one night (a simple scene that completely summarizes the emotional tension of the film), Sissy ends up bringing his boss home and sleeping with him. While Brandon is in the other room, he decides it is best to go out for a run to keep himself from hearing what is going on in his bedroom. What else does he do to help himself deal with the situation? He has sex. This is his method for dealing with every situation. He craves sex the way an alcoholic craves booze. A drink a day doesn’t even come close to satisfying the urge. As the film progresses it appears that Brandon actually wants to be punished for his addiction. He seeks and provokes altercations, because the shame of it all is just to great. Is it a turning point? An optimist can’t help but to hope it is.
“We’re not bad people, we just come from a bad place.” Sissy tells Brandon. This line of dialogue diverted my attention from the string of emotionally intense scenes and made me realize that we don’t know the backstory of either of these characters. Where exactly did they come from? That’s the #1 flaw of the movie in my opinion. We don’t have any idea how Brandon and Sissy actually ended up where they are. Looking back, there was multiple scenes that subtly referenced troubling incidents in the past without actually saying anything about them. Sissy was trying to bargain with a man on the phone at the beginning of the film and then tells her brother Brandon that she has no where else that she can go.. Yet, no details.
Despite the fact of whether or not I’m convinced that Shame truly knows the full story that it’s telling, it still remains a powerful work of art that is cinematically stunning and emotionally powerful. Without Fassbender and Mulligan, I doubt much of the film would have worked in the painfully illuminating way that it did.
Do beware that Shame has an NC-17 rating, and for good reason. The movie may be thought-provoking and deeply emotional, but it’s also very similar to a porno – if pornos actually had intelligent stories to tell. What’s truly amazing is that with all the nudity (expect to see all of Fassbender) and even more sex, there is nothing actually sexy about the film. It is a hard to watch, despite the sincerely remarkable performances by Fassbender and Mulligan.
The special features on the Blu-ray release provide a small amount of additional insight into what Steve McQueen was trying to accomplish with the film. There’s also a couple featurettes focusing on Fassbender, who did receive attention for this role last award season. It’s clear that he’s a name to watch.
All in all, expect a haunting tale that will leave you feeling a bit confused, not because the film doesn’t work – but because it works so well at psychologically messing with the characters that you’re not entirely sure what their fates will actually turn out to be.
Review By: Emma