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Movie Review – Shame

Posted on the 24 January 2012 by Plotdevice39 @PlotDevices

From the outset, Shame is a provocative movie.  The mere mention of the name of the film might elicit some whispers or murmurings from fellow movie goers about the NC-17 rated film.  We are used to seeing films that deal with addiction, whether alcohol or drug related, but never a movie that goes right for an already taboo subject like sex addiction.  Yes I can hear the groans, pleasurable or not, that this is an art-house film that talks about sex.  Shocking I know.  You might have heard about sex addiction, sometimes in a joking manner as some people jest about the seriousness of this addiction.  For some, how can you feel bad about a person getting sex all the time?  It’s an enjoyable experience, one that a lot of people engage in, but deep down inside, for some it might be more than pleasurable, it could be downright painful.

Movie Review – Shame

Artist turned Director, Steve McQueen (the man needs to change his name because in my mind, there is only one Steve McQueen), sets out to explore the sex addiction of one man and his psychological pain and suffering that comes from his habits.  The film follows Brandon (Michael Fassbender) and a good-looking, successful Manhattan business man, going through the motions of his life.  He wakes up, showers, calls an early morning prostitute, sexes her as only Fassbender can, and then showers only to masturbate once more.  His life seems fine on the surface, a good job, handsome and successful with women.  It isn’t until his estranged sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) shows up at his house to disrupt the silent life that Brandon lives.  She comes with her own problems, one of relationships that Brandon overhears one night.  What unfolds is a story of pain and anguish, both for Brandon and Sissy.  Brandon dives deeper into his addiction of sex, deriving more pain than pleasure from his experiences.  Sissy begins to latch onto him and anyone who shows her some attention, straining their relationship and opening up old wounds.

I don’t want to give away more of the film’s story line, since there is so little to discuss.  The films biggest subject is that of Brandon’s sex addiction, which take precedent over the small bit of story that Steve McQueen shows.  Brandon and Sissy aren’t very well fleshed out characters.  There is a deep pain that both have, one that hints at sexual abuse, but doesn’t go any further.  Their interactions are brief, slightly incestuous at times, but more about bringing to light their individual pain.  There is no father or mother for them to seek comfort in, instead they only have one another to feel safe or bitter with.  It’s this back story that is needed to make the film a bit more compelling, but McQueen decides to focus on the explicit sex and the damage that Brandon’s addiction does to him and those around him.

The character of Brandon is played brilliantly by Michael Fassbender.  Fassbender is quickly becoming a rising star in the film world and this film has him baring it all, emotionally and physically.  Now, for the sake of being adults and also for page views, there will be some talk of the Fassbender penis, which is almost a star of its own in the film.  From the opening scene of the film, Fassbender is on full display, almost with a pained and vulnerable reveal of his character.  He is stripped down from the get go and thrust (too much innuendo will be said in this review) into his routine of life.  He wakes up, pleasures himself, either manually or with assistance, and goes on about his day.  Brandon is effortlessly charming women with long, lingering glances and able to have any woman he wants, but there in lies his issue.  Although sex is a natural and fun act, there is this painful reveal that to him, sex doesn’t hold pleasure anymore.  Fassbender has a difficult task of making the act of sex seem painful and joyless, almost agonizing.  The labored look he has in the opening of the film immediately tells you that there is something just off about him.  He is a recluse for a reason, a man seemingly incapable of letting people into his life.  He hides his porn in his own house, he is protective about his computer and dispels any attempts at a relationship because of what he is.

Movie Review – Shame

While Fassbender’s reclusive Brandon is closed off to the rest of the world for a reason, it’s his sister Sissy who sheds a bit more light on the troubled family.  Carey Mulligan plays a slightly different character in this film than in her past ones.  This time she gets to play a waifish, damaged woman with some deep seeded issues, instead of her usual waifish, pixish self.  Carey bares herself as well for the camera, showing the same vulnerability that Brandon has with his issues.  Carey is under utilized in this movie as she plays a suicidal prone, musician who goes from person to person with no direction in life.  She has her moments in the film that highlight the pain that her and Brandon have, but those are fleeting and don’t have a lasting impact.  She is, in a sense, the perfect counterbalance to Brandon’s life.  They both have a fractured, past life, one where they form a co-dependent love/hate relationship that borders on incest and a symbiotic need for one another.  It’s abusive at times, but there is a strong connection of needing to be with one another that pushes them together, even through the final act of the film.

Director Steve McQueen does a marvelous job at portraying what sex addiction is life, but never really goes anywhere other than the explicit nature of the sex that takes place.  He has two wonderful actors at his disposal to show contrasting conflicts, but doesn’t proceed with the story.  Brandon’s sex addiction is more of a nutrient thing, seeing that he just uses sex as a mechanism to get him through life.  He doesn’t form an attachment to anyone as they are just a thing to him, man or woman.  Sissy on the other hand has sex as a means to develop an emotional attachment to someone.  Since sex is based on connections, physical or emotional, Sissy seems to crave the emotional aspect of sex, wanting to feel the need of the partner.  She wants to be loved, no matter how much it hurts her, she craves the emotional want rather than the physical want.  Her addiction is what causes her to follow down a tragic path that damages both her and Brandon’s life.  This is the sort of insight that should have been expanding, instead McQueen decides to push the sexual boundary of the film more for the artistic merit of earning that NC-17 rating.

Let me tell you right now, the sex in this movie is basically one, “I am here to fix the cable” line short of a full-blown porno.  The sex is on full display and often times titillates more than gives insight.  There are a few moments of agonizing from Fassbender that truly shows the pain he has in going through the motions of sex in order to satiate his needs.  The one thing that outshines the entire film, other than the threesome that Fassbender engages in that puts the American Psycho threesome to shame, is the portrayal of Brandon trying to have an emotionally connected relationship.  A seemingly innocent dinner date with a woman from the office leads to him questioning his life and contemplating his addiction.  While at work, he confronts her, whisks her away to a hotel and proceeds to make love.  The crushing fact is that trying to make love instead of just flat-out fucking is so frightening to Brandon that he can’t get erect and is ashamed of himself.  This is what the movie should have focused on, that is the emotional crutch in which we gain insight into a character.  I don’t care that he has sex with so many women, I just want to know why he can’t give himself to a woman on more than a physical level.

Movie Review – Shame

There are a lot of things that McQueen got right with the film.  The casting is perfect, the cinematography of the New York life is picturesque and often seedy looking, but the lack of a full narrative that explores more of the characters is what ultimately drags down the movie.  I want to connect with the characters, even if I don’t look like Fassbender.  The film is more style than substance, which is evident with the, sorry to say this, agonizing 4 minute rendition of “New York, New York” by Carey Mulligan.  Even for an art film, this was a bit pretentious.  I guess New Yorker’s might get something out of this but it didn’t add a damn thing to the film overall.  Also, just because you take a popular song and slow it down to a crawl and add a fancy piano to it, doesn’t make it great.  Sorry, but that just took me right out of it.  It’s an art film through and through, and while I appreciate the unflinching eye of the sex scenes, the beautiful framing of the film and gray tonal colors, the story just wasn’t there to pull it out of anything more than just a portrait of a sex addict.

I will commend Fassbender for his role as Brandon.  To go in a bare it all for everyone and the sake of the movie is impressive.  I am sure that the movie will be talked about a lot, but more so for the sex and Fassbender’s penis.  Let’s be honest, there is a bit of taboo that goes into wanting to see this movie and getting to see Fassbender lay it all out is enough to get people to the movie.  This aspect might be the thing that ultimately has people glossing over the story and characters and just enjoying a peep show.  Shame is the dirty little secret of the film circuit currently, one where the word of mouth will drive the film’s success.  Ultimately though, Shame leaves you feeling a bit empty and unfulfilled, much like that of Brandon, the film goes through the motions of telling a story and never giving you the satisfaction you want.

Rating: 3/5

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