Note on reviews: I try not to spoil what I would consider major plot revelations in any of my reviews, but I do like to talk about movies in a way that would be meaningful to someone who has seen the film. Thus, assume there are probably more spoilers than you’d find in, say, the trailer for any given film.
The most important thing to know about Shame is from the first moment to the last we are locked out. Out of this work, peering at it around corners and through fleeting glimpses. Certainly out of the head of main character Brandon (Michael Fassbender), who exists before us fully realized and presented with the frankness of voyeurism but never with a sense of exactly what’s going on behind his steady, passionate stare.
Such is the way of Steve McQueen’s film Shame, in which Fassbender plays a man suffering from sex addiction. Such an idea seems ripe for exploitation, but Shame is a far better film than that. It’s a movie heavy on suggestion, frontloaded with most of its most scandalous imagery of Fassbender, swaggering around a corner with his Fassboner in full view. That’s been a large manner of the discussion about the film, as such things often are, but plays very little part. Shame is a mood film, about obsession and self-harm.
From the outset we see clearly how joyless Brandon’s sex is. He pays prostitutes and seduces woman as a matter of course, still filling his computers with porn and rushing off multiple times a day to masturbate. It’s both furtive and sterile, done out of need more than any sort of passion. When he goes out to the bar with his boss, he watches as the other man ineptly tries to pick up a woman only to step up and swiftly talk his way into their attentions through little more than a few glances and a sentence or two. He doesn’t seem overeager, because he’s not. He knows what he needs to get his fix and carries on with an efficiency that bespeaks years of practice.
His routine is interrupted by the arrival of his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) who shows up on his doorstep fresh from somewhere. She never says where, and Brandon never asks, but the hospital bracelet on her wrist when she gets there and the scars that go up and down her arms leave plenty of room to speculate. She has nowhere to go and Brandon begrudgingly takes her in. At first it’s all fun, the bright spot in Brandon’s life, the two of them joking around in a way more natural than any other interaction he has. But he’s a man who needs his privacy to indulge in his addiction, and she’s far too close.
The middle portion of this film is the most strange and nebulous. The two of them share an uneasy truce of past troubles and careful sidesteps. Sissy ends up bedding Brandon’s sleazy, loser boss. It’s hard to tell if Brandon is disgusted that she picked him or jealous. Later, the man gone and their animosity seemingly behind them, she seeks comfort by climbing into bed with him, just to be held and loved. He explodes in a rage. Is it because she is the one woman he can’t have and is there around him all the time? Is it because she’s the one person who knows him for who he truly is and being around someone so knowing is eating him apart? Maybe both. It’s hard to say. It’s certainly never discussed by the two of them, who have moments of tenderness and moments of coldness so deep they seem like will never be human to each other again.
The movie is, in itself, a very cold film. The score, heavy with classical compositions and an amazing recurring piece of music by Harry Escott, is percussive with the crisp, clear quality of a ticking clock. It doesn’t hurt that it’s paired often against scenes of Brandon jogging through New York City or (even more appropriately) Brandon thrusting with abandon at his next conquest. It is beautiful and chilly and always at an arm’s length. That kind of tone is perfect for the reality these characters inhabit, full of carnality but not a lot of passion.
There are human moments, though, too, juxtaposed so perfectly that they carried with them a crushing sadness. Sissy gets a job singing at a lounge, and offers a slow, melancholy rendition of “New York New York” that moves Brandon to tears and is maybe the emotional highlight of the movie, taken in context of what comes after. She is never seen through anyone’s eyes but Brandon’s, and it’s often so negative, but in that one moment she’s beautiful and radiant and hopeful and everything Brandon’s world is not. Which is probably why he tries, futilely, to have a real relationship with a coworker who is interested in him. They go on a date, talk like normal people. When Brandon tries to bed her, it is probably the most actually sensual scene in the movie, and involves little more than some kissing and stripping before Brandon sighs, dejected, unable to perform under these alien conditions where emotions and sweetness are called for.
Which leads us to the fucking. Let’s not beat around the bush (ha!) because this movie was marketed and sold on the fact that involved nudity and sex and gosh don’t people love to see that? Smartly, the movie is actually fairly restrained. There’s nudity, to be sure, though outside of the aforementioned moments of Fassboner at the beginning and one particularly amazing rapid static-shot second-long montage of porn as Brandon tries to clean out his apartment, the movie isn’t much more explicit than your average internet banner ad. And just like them, it’s almost never sexy. Brandon’s obsessions are emotionless, cold, and sometimes even brutal and painful looking. He is a man who does what he does because he can’t do anything else, rarely because he enjoys it. So anyone looking for a bunch of lurid content might as well join Brandon in surfing for internet porn, because I can’t imagine anyone enjoying what goes on in Shame.
Which brings us right back around to where we started. Shame is a film kept under glass, beautiful and rigid and not quite fit for people to fondle too roughly. It’s plot is slim, it’s emotions subtle, and while there’s a certain beauty in it the whole thing passes like a desperate moment of sadness, washed away with barely any effort. Not that that’s bad, necessarily, but the film itself is light for such a potentially dark subject matter. I like Shame, but for the style and for the amazing performances (Carrey Mulligan often outshines Fassbender is better than she’s ever been, and yes I’m counting An Education and Drive) more than the movie. It’s an actor’s piece, and a good one, but it is also as loveless as the broken souls that inhabit it.