Review: 'Shame'

(Three stars)

As the title implies, Steve McQueen's "Shame" is a mood piece, as abstract and as engrossing as the many Bach piano selections laid on the soundtrack. It's yet another impressive showcase for the subtle work of Michael Fassbender, who literally bares all to play a sex addict.

Fassbender plays Brandon Sullivan, who not only beds women on the regular, but also compulsively masturbates to all manner of kinky Internet porn and maintains a collection of DVDs and sex toys to enhance and/or fill the hours between conquests. His secret low-life plays out in counterpoint to his upscale Manhattan lifestyle: Brandon lives and works in skyscraping, hermetically sealed chambers, flashing a Mona Lisa smile to create just enough of an appearance of normality to deflect inconvenient questions.

There's one person in the world from whom Brandon can't hide, much as he tries: his bipolar sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan). Despite his dodging, Sissy storms the castle and Brandon cannot refuse her request to stay for a spell. Quickly, we're led to wonder if part of Brandon's neurosis involves carrying a torch for his torch-singing sis.

In one of two scenes that compete to be Brandon's ultimate nightmare, his manic, married-with-kids boss (James Badge Dale) makes -- right in front of Brandon -- an aggressive bid to bed Sissy, following a languid performance of "New York, New York" that moves her brother to tears. A yet-more-devastating disaster involves a literally and figuratively impotent attempt at forging a meaningful relationship with someone other than Sissy.

Writer-director McQueen ("Hunger," also with Fassbender) makes a clear choice to suggest rather than spell out the siblings' backstory. The Irish-born, Jersey-raised Brandon obviously shares with his sister memories of some form of abuse. ("We're not bad people," she insists. "We just come from a bad place.") Bonded by surviving the unnamed horror, neither has been able to find a partner more comforting than the other, and Brandon's attempt to keep Sissy at arm's length may well reflect his fear of his own romantic or sexual feelings for her.

Or not. McQueen leaves such matters for the audience to decide, which makes the seedily sexual "Shame," while hardly an ideal date movie, a definite if divisive conversation starter. Another appealing ingredient is the film's interesting use of New York City geography (especially in a tracking shot that follows Brandon on a head-clearing run) as a reflection of the protagonist's isolation.

Mulligan does her most impressive work yet in conveying her character's sloppy, terribly sad neediness, but the picture belongs to her co-star. Fassbender makes a strong case for himself as the next Jeremy Irons, taking on mostly serious-minded work and quietly revealing tormented men from inside-out embodiment. (It's hard not to wonder about how much Fassbender, with his presumable ease of attracting partners and his transitory lifestyle, may have inspired McQueen in the writing of the character.)

The story's events make the shameful Brandon more desirous of healing than ever, but he seems unable to change his ways, even as age threatens to force something of a lifestyle shift. True to form, the film's theme ends on an unresolved note.

Rated NC-17 for some explicit sexual content. 1 hour, 41 minutes.

— Peter Canavese

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Like this comment
Posted by Anon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 17, 2011 at 12:02 pm

Wanting to get out and see a movie I attended the 9:55 showing of "Shame" last night at the Aquarius theater. What a shame that was.

The movie sounded interesting, maybe even comedic, sister visits sex addict brother, but certainly a lot of room for an interesting or revelatory takes on "Sex addiction" or family relations.

Instead this movie is just a downer, and a downer with no point or redeeming qualities. There is nothing said that is revelatory or that indicates an arc or development of the character. The movie relies on shock scenes done in a kind of cool, blase, matter of fact way to wink at the audience that says you are modern and sophisticated, you can see what is happening here .. when in fact there is really nothing happening, and what does happen is non believeable.

For example in one scene Brandon the supposed sex-addict hero supposedly gives in to his boss and invites him along to go see his sister singing in a swanky upscale club. The sister goes on and sings the most depressing downbeat version of New York, New York, one of the most God-awful performances in a movie I've ever seen, and rather ridiculous that she did not get ignored or booed off the stage. Brandon's slimy and married boss puts the make on his sister right before his eyes, and Brandon does nothing when they get home to his one-bedroom Manhattan apartment but go out running when they commandeer his bed for their clearly one-time affair. I found it unbelievable that anyone would allow this to happen to them, let alone their emotionally vulnerable sister.

The other thing is that by interpretting the the song New York, New York in New York the movie is clearly trying to be clever and making a comment of what it thinks is New York, the impersonal big city cliche, but there is nothing coherent in that aspect of the movie either. Yes, big cities can be impersonal, yes cliche, so ?????

This scene is so full of confusion that it is a perfect example of why most modern movies are so bad, and movie attendence is way down. In economic times in the past movie attendence has gone up - presumably because people want to escape. I however just wanted to escape from this movie though.

Anyway, my point is that these days directors and producers have freed themselves from having to actually make any sense in a movie, or any thought or insight into the human condition or create real characters that have 3 dimensions and that you might care about - by throwing loaded images and scenes up in front of the audience these days and letting them working it out for them in a kind of Rorshach test, and it creates buzz and controversy by all the argument it provokes.

Movies these days, at least ones like this, most of them, are pretentious and illiterate, masquerading as literature commenting on the human condition, using trolls and dupes to make their case for them in online review boards, when in fact they are just anti-literate wastes of time. They do not have to be, but clearly when they wrote and decided to produce this movie there was just nothing in mind. What is the point of this movie? Nothing. There is absolutely no reason to see it - so don't, save your money and your time. If you want to see a better and closer up version of porn just do a quick search on the Internet - don't accept this kind of slip-shod trickery masquerading as literacy or even a movie, there is nothing to see here, move along, as was said near the end of the movie itself.

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