Directed by: Steve McQueen
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan
Director Steve McQueen (2013 Best Picture Winner, 12 Years a Slave), in just three feature films, has proven that he’s not one to shy away from telling a story as truthfully as it comes – no matter how dark, no matter how disturbing and distressing it can be. McQueen is a brutally honest filmmaker – he strips away all the pleasantries and delusions of a typical Hollywood film leaving humanity bare and utterly exposed each time, revealing the sides that you’ll seldom see on film. In accordance with this, in his second and greatest feature, Shame, he explores the life of a sex addict whose private life spirals out of control when his troubled sister comes to stay, stirring some dark and emotional past between them. Starring Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan, Shame is a spellbinding film that I fear was severely overlooked upon it’s release, most likely due to it’s NC:17 rating, but is a movie that should be recognized by movie-goer and movie-lover alike as a truly great film, hence it’s entry into the Movie Bucket today.
Try getting McQueen to direct something like Fifty Shades of Grey and then you’d really have something worthwhile – sleak and sexy, yet shocking and unnerving. Thankfully, McQueen didn’t have to make a movie like that, because Shame already is that movie… but actually good and without the riff-raff. Here, we follow Brandon (Fassbender) – a successful, middle-aged man living in Manhattan who has managed a ritual of his daily routines to merge with his sexual habits. Brandon is tall, handsome, sharp – he’s an alluring presence, effortlessly charming, but modest, and perfectly capable of having any woman he wanted. Behind closed doors Brandon’s sex life delves deeper and more perverse. He indulges in the occasional high-price escort, online porn and chatrooms, frequently masturbating at home and at work – some of his activities may seem harmless at first. The compulsive manner in which Brandon conducts them into his day-to-day life, however, shows a man alienated from society, tip-toeing on a fine line between being in control and losing it completely. The score that accompanies the opening scene features a clock ticking, perhaps signifying the ticking time bomb that will inevitably go off.
The remarkable thing that McQueen accomplishes with Shame is that he takes Brandon’s “shameful” lifestyle, and makes it seductive and alluring, almost irresistible. The opening scene (which is posted below and seriously one of my favorite scenes in cinema ever) in which Brandon sits on the subway, silently seducing a beautiful woman sitting across from him, is seriously one of the most beautifully orchestrated, sexiest, tension-filled scenes on film. The mounting sexual tension, accompanied by Harry Escott’s sweeping score, the tantalizing stare between these two would-be lovers is almost overwhelming. And then she turns away and leaves him in the subway, by which point we’re already so mesmerized, we share his despair and frustration.
The shame starts sneaking in when Sissy (Mulligan) arrives, slowly unveiling a bitter resentment that Brandon holds for her, and unleashing the bleak consequences of this lifestyle. The contrast plays out onscreen as the tones fluctuate between warm and inviting, illuminating the luxurious and stimulating life Brandon thrives on, and the cold and pale reality that keeps breaking in. Sissy is painfully needy and overly comfortable with her brother, and she plays ignorant to the fact that he doesn’t want her there. The unflinching tracking shots that McQueen uses between Brandon and Sissy as they argue, only elevate the the building tension in these scenes, becoming overwhelmingly uncomfortable, almost distressing. The heightened senses that are developed throughout this movie become so vivid and personal, it’s easy to get swept away with it. The climax (no pun intended) – a night of Brandon digressing from one sex act to another, landing him in a threesome – starts off as a nightmarish haze that turns into a picturesque dream sequence as he finally gets that release and sensation that he had been trying to suppress. Perhaps it’s saying every one of us have those same carnal desires – some us choose to fulfill them, others suppress them – as we later learn with the closing scene and the beautiful stranger on the subway has returned, engagement ring still on her finger, but a different, tempting look on her face.
Obviously, this movie would be nothing without the sheer conviction that Michael Fassbender puts to playing Brandon. Why this man wasn’t even nominated for all of the awards in 2011 is still beyond me (he got one Golden Globe nod). Fassbender has been a favorite of mine since he started sprouting up in 300 and Inglorious Basterds (for which he was also severely overlooked), and working with McQueen on each of his films has been the best thing for both men, as they push each other to their limits. Shame is a testament to that as this is truly one of the most charismatic and yet disturbing performances of a deviant I can think of. In the manner McQueen pulls us in with the cinematography and music, Fassbender does so with his captivating performance. He talks very little, he’s calm, seemingly passive – he has an irresistibly cool demeanor and pays close attention to detail in every aspect of his life (an instinct developed from his sexual exploits, no doubt). We’re drawn to him as we know what he is, but we quickly develop a hunger to see what makes him tick; what is it that draws these women to him, what are his kinks and all other dirty secrets? The answers unfold bit by bit on the screen, and Fassbender unveils them with subtlety, completely nuanced and natural. On the subway, he has but to look at the beautiful stranger (that’s her name now, but her actual name is Lucy Walters and she’s wonderful) to lure her in, and we know exactly what each of them are thinking without the need for dramatic gestures or overdone facial expressions – it’s so subtle and natural throughout the entirety of this film, it’s absolutely stunning to behold.
… I digress. I also need to mention Carey Mulligan, of course, who is not only an actress of absolute beauty, but in Shame takes a giant leap from her comfort zone and plays against type with Sissy, and she’s just as phenomenal as Fassbender. Singing a tear-jerking rendition of “New York, New York” in yet another memorable scene, Mulligan completely captivates you as the camera stays on her for a majority of the song and Brandon watches on from across the room. As much of a showstopper as she may be, Sissy brings an emotional weight with her, putting on a show with her brother – attempting to warm to him, overly playful and, at times, touchy feely with him – but deep down she’s a truly emotional and troubled woman, and with her brother shares a dark past that is only ever alluded to, but between these two superb actors, it’s a presence that’s felt all the way through. In a confrontation that occurs prior to Brandon’s endless sex odyssey, the two sit close to each other with another unflinchingly camera shot sitting between them as the discussion builds into an argument and, staying within arms length and staring right into each others face, they spit venom at one another – the scene is so dramatically and emotionally intense, both actors play it perfectly, and Mulligan fearlessly holds her own. I suppose it’s rare for most actors to have roles like this come along, but the pairing of these two is worthy of Classic – they’re both career-best performances and if it weren’t so dark, it’d be iconic.
There’s so much to love about this movie, I could go on and on referring to one scene and another, but the simple fact is that you have to see it if you haven’t yet. It’s powerful, emotional, sensual and intense, and it’ll literally captivate you from beginning to end. It’s one of those great movies that you can fully immerse yourself in, get swept away with, and let it linger for a good while after. Have a drink with it even, it’s sexy, and the more attention you can give it, the better it gets. The performances are unforgettable, and the direction is superb (check out McQueen’s other work if you haven’t, but this is the best) – Shame overall is just a terrific, underrated movie and one of my all time favorites – well worthy of our Movie Bucket.