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 hell, Shame rises above any sleaziness 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 type. He is addicted to countless one-night stands and online porn, unable to have sex with any emotional intimacy. 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 darkness 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 complete investment in its grim story. What it isn’t though is pornographic or sleazy – in fact viewers expecting erotic titillation will probably be disappointed – 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 depend on the efforts of lead actor Michael Fassbender – hence their raw emotion. His Brandon is complex and contradictory, a man of charm and intellect, yet also of sloth and sin. He is a modern Wolf Man – turned into a monstrous, carnal beast at night not through an ancient spell, but through his own dysfunctional 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 a weirdly 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 pervading gloom 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 whether he achieves this in the film, McQueen himself definitely moves debate on sex addiction in the right direction by making such an honest and intimate film on the topic.
Like its lead character, Shame is a haunting film that is as fascinating as it is repelling.