We go into a movie expecting to hear a story—to have a character and his or her journey chronicled before us. With Shame, the entire story exists beneath the events happening on screen. To take it at surface value, Shame doesn’t offer much in the vein of story: Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender) is an Ireland-born New Yorker who works at your standard ambiguous big business firm, has an intrusive sister and a sleazy boss, and seems to enjoy pleasuring himself a lot. But Shame’s story is the internal of Brandon, about an otherwise “normal” man’s warfare with his own addiction.
And the described style of the film isn’t just for the sake of the old “show don’t tell” rule. It makes sense to have Brandon’s struggle be masked by the events of the movie. Brandon’s struggle is masked by the events of his life. The story involves the man’s sexual obsessions that line his every thought and compel him to seek out regrettable outlets and his desperate efforts to separate them from his professional, social and family lives—but even more than this, it is about the regret itself that envelops these obsessions.
Near the beginning of the film, we see Brandon on a New York City subway, fixated on a fellow-passenger with a pretty obvious engagement ring. From this point on, we try to understand Brandon: is he at all repelled by the idea of chasing a committed woman as his focus on her ring might suggest? If so, why does he inspire a desire within her, then following her off the subway car and up onto the street?
From the get-go, watching Shame is an active experience. As nothing is explicitly delivered to us—I don’t believe the word “addiction” or any pertinent synonyms are uttered, or even alluded to in any overt way, throughout the film—we are forced to become Brandon to understand him. A man who, in the surface, is likely someone we wouldn’t mind being: he’s intelligent, charming and well-liked, handsome, successful. But the difficulty in watching Shame comes along with connecting to Brandon’s less approachable humanity—the man torn apart by his cravings and his resentment. An angry, hypocritical, self-loathing and self-serving man who has never experienced a moment’s peace.
But Shame is unapologetic in its journey to make us accept and invite this uncomfortable character into our understanding. In fact, a whole lot about Shame seems to intend on making us uneasy. The relationship between Brandon and his sister Sissy (played expertly by Carey Mulligan)—from Brandon’s dismissal of Sissy’s desperate, sobbing phone calls, to Sissy’s inebriated embrace of her brother’s (married) boss as he rides right beside them in the backseat of a taxicab, to Brandon’s rage- and humiliation-fueled physical domination of his sister—Brandon is so stricken by these feelings is after Sissy catches him in a compromising position that he doesn’t even bother to put any clothes on before tackling her to the couch and assaulting her with violent insults, provoking a rapid change in her mood and nerve. The long shot of Sissy singing a somber “New York, New York,” in a classy nightclub is at once beautiful and disarming, as we as American audience members are not used to this kind of filmmaking.
Director Steve McQueen is heavily present throughout Shame. His illustration of New York is more alluring—and a bit more disconcerting—than any I’ve seen in recent film. His depiction of Brandon is bold and erratic, which plays perfectly against Fassbender’s quiet, subdued performance. All of the pieces of the film work together, taking different angles, to tell this story of this crumbling man and his domineering shame.
Every action, every moment, every piece of Shame's sparsely distributed dialogue is delicate and strikingly commanding. The performances—not only those of Fassbender and Mulligan, but of James Badge Dale as Brandon's sleazy co-worker, Nicole Beharie as Brandon's woman of interest, and the handful of players whose characters are used and shredded by the destructive path of the dying Brandon. The film is intrusive—it forces us to allow the agonies of Brandon to permeate us as we watch. The film is unbelievably magnetic—there’s not a second in the film that isn’t contextually and visually captivating. In fact, the film is damn near perfect, right up to the culminating turn of events that demands a harsher admittance of the demons that enwrap our main character. Not in recent cinema have we seen such a gripping, authentic and vibrant story—and there are few human reservations more deserving of this attention and beauty than the haunting, despicable and invigorating sensation of shame.
Do you feel the same way about Shame? Let us know what you thought in the comment section or on Twitter @MichaelArbeiter.
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