© 2011 Ray Wong
Let's get this out of the way first: yes, Shame earned its NC-17 rating fair and square, what with its explicit nudity and sexual content. But is there something more substantial than soft core porn?
Brandon (Michael Fassbender) is a handsome, charming and successful advertising executive at a prestigious New York firm. On the surface, he has everything: a fledging career, a boss (James Badge Dale) who adores him, a posh river-view bachelor pad, and a busy sex life. But underneath all that, there's a lonely man with a dark secret: Brandon is a sex addict. He's also emotionally closed up. He couldn't maintain any real connection with anyone.
He's coping just fine, thank you very much, until his free-spirited sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) shows up to crash at his place. She is a lounge singer who has just broken up with her boyfriend and needs a place to stay. Reluctantly Brandon lets her. But soon, she is ruining his routines and life -- not to mention his privacy and desperation to keep his secret hidden.
Michael Fassbender (A Dangerous Method) has garnered much attention lately with his starring roles in movies such as X-Men: First Class and Jane Eyre. But his role as the sex addict in Shame is propelling him, rather quickly, into the stratosphere of stardom. As Brandon, Fassbender not only bares his body for the camera, he also bares his soul. His performance of the outwardly normal but internally deviant and tortured man is sublime, to say the least. It was no surprise that he took the Best Actor award at the Venice Film Festival and is now one of the frontrunners at the Oscars.
Carey Mulligan (Drive) also broke mold by playing an attention-seeking, out-of-control manipulator who just wants to be loved, instead of her usual innocent, naive young women. Her screen times are relatively brief but her role is pivotal and important, and she makes it her own. The supporting cast is all excellent including James Badge Dale (The Conspirator) as Brandon's jerk of a boss and Nicole Beharie (The Express) as the casualty of Brandon's romantic redemption.
Written by Abi Morgan (The Iron Lady) and director Steve McQueen (Hunger), the screenplay is surprisingly bare-bone. There's practically no plot, and I am not entirely sure what the character arc is. I would categorize this as an extreme character study. Sure, things are happening and connections are forged and broken, and characters are forced into situations and find themselves cornered. Yet as a story, it is relatively plotless. The situations are there for the characters, especially the protagonist, to reveal themselves behind their facades and pretense. Morgan and McQueen don't spend too much time explaining the characters' backgrounds and motivations. We're supposed to get to know them throughout the story.
Unfortunately, as amazing as the actors are, the characters simply aren't very likable or sympathetic. We may understand their turmoils and conflicts, but we don't necessarily identify or empathize with them. "Get some help. Seriously" is my initial thought. As a character study or cautionary tale, the story explores certain dark and deep themes: addiction, emotional unavailability, family, relationships… However, I feel that they have gone to the extremes and, in turn, alienated the audiences. Therefore, it fails to fully engage me.
McQueen's directing style is minimalistic, often with long tracking shot of characters staring at nothing. However, I do appreciate his artistic vision and use of camera movements, colors, patterns, and themes. He's good at setting the mood and letting the actors do their thing. Michael Fassbender certainly has made it work for him. While it's a story of a sex addict, the nudity and sex scenes could feel gratuitous at times. That's definitely an artistic choice, though.
Shame is a solemn character study with superb performances from its leads, and an artistically interesting "art film." It's just a shame that the characters are not so likable and the story lacks a certain quality to fully engage us.
Stars: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale, Nicole Beharie
Director: Steve McQueen
Writers: Abi Morgan, Steve McQueen
Distributor: Fox Searchlight
MPAA Rating: NC-17 for explicit sexual content
Running Time: 101 minutes
Script - 6
Performance - 8
Direction - 7
Cinematography - 7
Music/Sound - 7
Editing - 7
Production - 7
Total - 7.0 out of 10.0