"Oh there were women. Lots of women. Lots of love-making but no love."
- Charlton Heston, Planet of the Apes
There is a lot of sex in Shame. Much of it is fairly explicit. The nudity in the film is also as explicit as you'll see in a mainstream movie released over the last decade. But the sex and the nudity aren't truly central to the film, even though Michael Fassbender plays a man with a semi-crippling sex addiction. What's central to the film is self-loathing and self-punishment. The title of the movie indicates to what, in many ways, Fassbender's character is truly addicted.
This is the second go-round for Fassbender and Steve McQueen, a British artist whose film debut, Hunger, was a shattering masterpiece. The story of the death of Irish hunger striker Bobby Sands (played by a mostly-unknown Fassbender), Hunger was gorgeous and brutal and often hard to watch - as the depiction of a man starving to death should be. Hunger is filled with religious symbology, fitting for the story of a martyr. It is a great work.
Shame suffers in comparison to Hunger - it's not as full, or as transporting - but the films must be compared because the two movies are, thematically, of a piece. Both films are about men inflicting grievous pain upon themselves, and both films are named for the pain. Both films center themselves around one of the seven deadly sins - lust is the obvious sin for Shame, but Hunger could be about gluttony or pride, depending on your take on it. Shame has less of the religious symbology, but it's there. While Sands was mortifying his flesh, Fassbender's Shame character, Brendan, is mortifying his soul.
If this makes Shame sound less than sexy, you're correct. It's an extraordinarily unerotic erotic movie. Which isn't to say that McQueen uglies the sex up; he's a master visual stylist and he shoots the sex scenes with beauty and power. But he's working with a great actor, and he's a great director, and together they turn these beautifully shot, powerful sequences into hollow futility.
Brendan lives alone in a sparse Manhattan apartment. He works at some kind of a start up where his douchebag boss wears an expensive hoodie every day. When he isn't masturbating he's picking up hookers. When he isn't picking up hookers he's making strange women on the subway wet with his powerful gaze. He's a sexual predator whose prey loves being caught; a sexual lion, the subway is his savanna and the gazelles delight in being brought down.
But his compulsions are getting dangerous, shown in the form of a work computer that is virus-laden and crammed full of porn. Self-destruction looms on his horizon, and when his sister shows up at his apartment that self-destruction speeds up.
Carey Mulligan plays his sister, Cissy, a woman who shares an unspoken trauma and secret with him. Her arms are a latticework of self-inflicted scars, and where Brendan is withdrawn and has no inner life, Cissy is an extrovert always looking for the next person to whom she can cling. The boundaries of their relationship is never made clear, but her introduction - he bursts in on her in the tub, and she is revealed fully nude, water dripping down her body to her exposed pubes as they carry on a conversation - indicates that there is a troubling past between them.
Mulligan is extraordinary. Her role is very supporting, and she drops out of the movie for long stretches. So much of her character is presented in small touches - when we see her in the tub in that opening scene she seems to have a hospital tag on her wrist. A nightclub singer, her slow, devastated rendition of New York, New York lets us see the contours of the ruined geography of her hopes. There's one amazing scene where Brendan, wearing only a towel, jumps on her; at first Cissy thinks he's horsing around, and the way that Mulligan goes from playful wrestling to panicked pain in a moment is breathtaking. It isn't acting, it's reality.
Fassbender has a tougher role. Brendan is closed off from everyone, including himself. He takes no pleasure in his pleasures, and as the movie brings him closer to his self-destruction it becomes obvious that he takes pleasures in his pain. He provokes a beating in a bar, he pushes himself into a Dante-esque gay sex club just to get to the next level of abject self-loathing. The one time he tries to sleep with a woman he likes, he can't get it up (or is the problem that she's not a blonde, like his sister?). Sex isn't a release, it's a way to open up his disgust with himself.
The actor plays the part small (except for one comparatively over-the-top crying in the rain scene), which means audiences must engage in his every moment and every move to understand him. Brendan is an easy character to dislike, or more from whom to feel disconnected. The script by McQueen and Abi Morgan (best known for issue-oriented TV movies and the upcoming The Iron Lady) is purposefully oblique, feeding the audience only the smallest morsels of information. Fassbender must carry the rest of the character in and with him, and I think he does a remarkable job. Give him your attention and he will reward you with a hugely damaged, vulnerable and essentially human character visible just behind a thick wall of ice.
Where Hunger was very much about Northern Ireland and Belfast, Shame is a great New York City movie. McQueen loves long takes, and he gives us a couple of beautiful long shots of the city. The most spectacular one has Brendan running through the late night streets of Manhattan, escaping from the sounds of his sister fucking his boss. Sean Bobbit, who also shot Hunger, captures the incandescently cold pools of New York City night light perfectly in this tracking shot. McQueen composes his shots with a delicate sense of the understanding of every inch of the frame; placement is so precise that it works as a component of the storytelling.
There is one bravura sequence that I cannot tell you about, as it's a massive spoiler, but to me it's the heart of the great style McQueen has. It's a fake out moment, where we're led to believe that one thing is happening but it simply portents something else, but it's all tension and build-up in a way that would outshine most mainstream thrillers. I love the scene, and look forward to talking about it after the movie opens.
Shame's biggest weakness is that it occasionally finds itself mired in an all-too-standard drama about addiction and family dynamics. The skeleton of the story is run of the mill, but it's what McQueen puts on that skeleton - with the aid of his incredible actors - that makes Shame more than its roots as a sex addiction story.
Shame is a very reserved movie about the pursuit of excess in search of emotional catharsis. It's impeccably shot and superbly acted, but it lacks the transcendent quality that made Hunger a masterpiece. Still, not every movie needs to be the greatest ever, and Shame remains powerfully head and shoulders over most of what's released.