Shame (Film Review)
Clearly, sex addiction can be as destructive a disorder as alcoholism or drug abuse. Anyone who disagrees need only watch director Steve McQueen’s Shame to see the horror it can inflict. With its gripping story of one man’s personal journey through hell, Shame rises above simple sleaze and instead delivers deep, character-driven drama.
The story’s troubled protagonist is Brandon (Michael Fassbender), a rich, handsome ad executive in his 30’s in New York. Although popular with his boss David (James Badge Dale) and his peers, Brandon hides a dark secret – he is a compulsive sex addict of the worst kind. He is addicted to countless one-night stands and online porn, unable to have sex with anyone that he cares for emotionally. When his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) moves in to his apartment, Brandon’s carefully constructed façade of normality starts to slip, leading to a rapid descent into vulgarity and vice.
Admittedly, Shame’s appeal will be limited to many casual viewers. Not only is it extremely explicit in its sex, but also it is emotionally intense, demanding audiences to be full-blown participants in the harsh implosion of Brandon’s life. What it isn’t though is pornographic or cheap – in fact viewers expecting soft-core thrillers will probably be disappointed – as the many sex scenes are presented to us much the way Brandon experiences them: cold and detached on the surface, but quietly teeming with angst and pain.
All of these scenes thrive on the raw, visceral performance of actor Michael Fassbender. His Brandon is complex and contradictory, a man of great charm and intellect, yet also of even greater sloth and sin. He is a modern-day Wolf Man – a gentleman turned into a monstrous, carnal beast at night not through an ancient spell, but through the broken workings of his own mind. Fassbender conveys this brilliantly through his physicality – at work he is slumped back and relaxed, laughing and drinking with his boss, appearing to be every inch confident and assured. By contrast, his demeanour shifts completely when with women at parties or even the subway – his body stiffens and his eyes steel up like a predator ready to strike. The change is nothing short of startling to say the least.
Adding to Brandon’s plight is his sister Sissy, a manically depressed and homeless jazz singer. Although her role is smaller than Brandon’s – perhaps showing his lack of empathy for her – Carey Mulligan is memorable as the character, exuding an aloof paranoia in scenes such as in her bar performance of ‘New York New York’, or a bathroom argument that escalates to frightening heights.
The film’s gloomy tone is enforced by the visuals and score: the grimy back alleys of Brooklyn set the scene for the lewd acts to follow, while the low and brooding string score underscores Brandon’s cold, self-loathing.
Although its events are unsettling, Shame as a film always remains intimate and empathetic. Even after his most extreme moments, the audience always feels sympathetic for Brandon, hoping for a possible redemption for him and his sister. Regardless of Brandon’s personal outcome by the end of Shame , McQueen as a director has made an engrossing piece of work that, with its unflinching honesty and riveting character drama, may just be the definitive story of sex addiction on film.
Like its lead character, Shame is a haunting film that is as fascinating as it is repelling.