Please don't tell anyone about what you just saw Judge Clark Douglas doing.
Graphic, highly provocative and undeniably powerful.
"If I left, I would never hear from you again. Don't you think that's sad?"
Facts of the Case
Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender, X-Men: First Class) is a wealthy, handsome New York businessman whose entire life is consumed by sex. He is constantly on the prowl for new conquests, whether he's in a local nightclub or on the subway. When these efforts fall short, he hires prostitutes to take care of his insatiable lusts. During the rest of his free time, he consumes a steady diet of pornography. At work, he's made a steady habit of slipping into the restroom to masturbate. Brandon's schedule of endless orgasm is interrupted when his estranged sister Sissy (Cary Mulligan, An Education) turns up at his apartment looking for a place to stay. During her time there, Brandon finds himself forced to confront some of his darkest inner demons.
When Steve McQueen's Shame was released in 2011, two topics seemed to comprise the majority of the conversation about the film:
1. "Shame is rated NC-17!"
2. "Michael Fassbender has a large penis!"
While these are indeed two verifiable facts, the fact that Shame is an ambitious, understated, thoughtful movie about a difficult subject was largely overlooked. Much like Hunger (the previous film directed by McQueen), Shame is a movie that gazes into the abyss without flinching, providing an intense yet empathetic examination of its protagonist. While the notion of comparing a film about a guy who likes to have a sex a lot to a film about a man going on a political hunger strike may seem absurd, there's a similar sense of unwavering purpose in both cases. McQueen quickly and effectively dispels us of the notion that Brandon is simply an insatiably horny playboy. He's a man in the grip of a ruthless disease.
Shame is an apt title for the film, a one-word descriptor that could easily summarize many of the movie's most harrowing scenes. There's no joy in Brandon's life; he's a wealthier and better-composed variation on Harvey Keitel's corrupt cop in Bad Lieutenant. Yes, he pursues his decadent goals with gusto, but he's less interested in pursuing pleasure than in numbing pain. His pursuit of orgasm is akin to a junkie's pursuit of their next fix; it's something he feels he needs just to cope. In so many of those revealing moments right after a climax, he is struck with yet another realization of just how low he is willing to stoop to get his fix. It's not easy to get audiences to feel pity for a handsome, wealthy guy who has a whole lot of sex (see the preposterous Ashton Kutcher vehicle Spread as evidence), but Fassbender and McQueen pull it off with aplomb.
In all four of his high-profile 2011 outings, Fassbender essayed publicly polished individuals masking inner anguish. Consider Magneto's suppression of his childhood pain, Mr. Rochester's careful guarding of a dark personal secret and Carl Jung's torment over his sexual relationship with a patient. However, Shame is perhaps the most potent of those fine performances, as it features Fassbender at his most exposed (literally and otherwise). The steely, wolfish seductiveness we see early on is merely the impressive performance of a truly desperate, broken man. In those moments when his facade comes crumbling down around him (such as when his sister discovers the depth of his addiction, or when a promising relationship hits a crucial roadblock), Fassbender's anguish is palpable and heartbreaking.
Intriguingly, it's through Cary Mulligan's performance as Sissy that we learn a great deal about Brandon. The self-reflection Brandon finds himself engaging in is partially inspired by the fact that Sissy has interrupted his routine, but also by the fact that she's a reminder of who he really is. Early on, there's a much-discussed scene in which Mulligan performs a mournful, aching take on the traditionally chipper "New York, New York." Brandon's reaction to the song is an unexpected moment of genuine humanity; something that finally cracks that carefully-composed mask he has created. Late in the film, Mulligan delivers a monologue which vaguely hints at events in the past which might have led to the present state of both characters. It's a scene of powerful subtlety, giving us just enough information to allow us to get an idea of what happened without spilling into sensationalist melodrama. Though Fassbender's performance is certainly the film's driving force, Mulligan's turn is similarly brave and worthy of applause.
In Hunger, McQueen demonstrated a knack for delivering long, unbroken takes without calling too much attention to himself, and he does so once again in Shame. There are several impressive set pieces delivered throughout the film, the best of which may be an extended dinner conversation between Brandon and a co-worker. It's a beautifully-handled piece of writing, with personal revelations punctuated by gently comic interruptions from an eager waiter. McQueen also demonstrates a masterful control of tone, allowing the journeys into genuinely horrific territory to arrive in a natural, persuasive manner. McQueen has stated on numerous occasions that he didn't really intend to make a "New York movie," but together with cinematographer Sean Bobbitt he captures a vivid portrait of the city's seedy sterility.
Shame (Blu-ray) has received a strong 1080p/2.35:1 transfer which beautifully preserves McQueen's crisply-shot picture. Much of Shame takes place at night, so it's a good thing that the transfer provides deep blacks and strong shadow delineation. There's a slightly heavy measure of grain at times, but it's never distracting and is completely free of DNR. Brighter colors really pop on the rare occasions when they appear, and flesh tones are stellar. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is also impressive, as it brings a lot of depth and richness to the film's generally quiet soundtrack. Sound design is masterful throughout, and Harry Escott's score is rich and enveloping. One peculiar note on the score, however: after seeing Shame for the first time, I told numerous people that the film incorporated pieces from Hans Zimmer's score for The Thin Red Line. However, it seems that those pieces are actually thinly-veiled variations on that material composed by Escott. I'm frankly astonished that Escott was able to get away with such a blatant bit of stealing without providing any official credit to Zimmer, but I'll leave that mystery to the lawyers. It must be admitted that the piece is immensely effective within the film—just as it was the first time we heard it in The Thin Red Line. Supplements are sadly limited to a handful of entirely disposable EPK-style featurettes: "Focus on Michael Fassbender" (3 minutes), "Director Steve McQueen" (3 minutes), "The Story of Shame" (3 minutes), "A Shared Vision" (3 minutes) and "In Character with Michael Fassbender" (5 minutes). You also get a trailer, a DVD Copy and a Digital Copy.
After making two movies together, Steve McQueen and Michael Fassbender have proven themselves as fearless, ambitious collaborators. Shame is an effective and haunting portrait of sex addiction; one well worth the time of mature adult viewers. It's a difficult watch, but a very rewarding one.
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