Brandon (Michael Fassbender) is a handsome thirty-something New Yorker hailing from Ireland. He owns a tidy single room apartment, paid for by his respectable corporate job. He has friends. A sociable lifestyle. His outward appearance would point towards the perfect life, but Brandon is also a sex addict. Shame is about him. It’s about the impulses which deny him normality, drawing him deeper and deeper into a personal hell. This feels like a deeply realistic portrait of uncontrollable dependency. The addiction in Shame is quiet. It festers away inside, consuming all other desires. It swallows its victim whole, forcing him to withdraw from the life he once knew, piece by piece. Work days are interrupted by the need for a bathroom break. Brandon feverishly masturbates while his colleagues sip coffee in the lounge. This cycle will repeat, again and again.
McQueen’s previous feature was Hunger (2008), a prison drama about Bobby Sands (played by Fassbender), who died on a hunger strike while imprisoned at The Maze. Here Fassbender plays another captive man, but Brandon’s cell is a psychological one. It manifests itself in the blank walls of his cold, sterile apartment, and the glass surrounding his listless office block. DP Sean Bobbitt creates a landscape of hazy browns and greys, only lifted by the appearance of Brandon’s unstable sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan), a freeloader moonlighting as a free spirt, drifting from town to town in the hope of becoming a singer. Her bleach blonde hair, vintage red hats and bright fur coats provide the film’s colour, but she becomes a weight around her brother’s neck. As if he needed another one.
Fassbender is magnetic in the central role, turning in a subdued, raw and naked (yes, sometimes literally) performance. His glassy, expressive eyes flick back and forth on a subway train, searching for a fix. Across the carriage a pretty girl meets and holds his gaze, feigning bashfulness. Then she sees the hunger in his eyes and becomes uncomfortable – perhaps even afraid. Brandon’s impulses are animalistic, but he’s trying his best to keep them in check. Several scenes pause to observe his face, or the way he paces a room. Fassbender has created a layered physical portrayal of addiction, perhaps the most believable the screen has ever witnessed. But Mulligan is also fantastic here, playing against type and enveloping herself in a complex character who gets too little screentime. She’s particularly impressive when delivering a gentle, warbling rendition of ‘New York New York‘, which suddenly becomes about hopelessness.
I have to admit that I’m finding it very hard to write about Shame. It’s not a film served well by instant reactions, such is the depth and intensity of its story. It’s a film which needs time to settle and expand in the mind of the viewer, and then be revisited. This won’t be a comfortable experience. I suspect it’ll be just as harrowing as the first time, the memory of which is digging deeper and deeper into my mind with every passing minute. Those low-lit hallways and pulsating streets, buzzing with nocturnal life – they’ll haunt me for weeks to come.
What’s really striking about McQueen’s film, which doesn’t wallow in or preach about its subject matter, is that it never pulls a punch, and never feels like it’s working toward a happy ending. Too many films about addiction feel the need to redeem their characters, slipping into overwrought melodrama as they tick off the clichés. Another recent movie about sex addiction was Choke (Clark Gregg, 2008), based on a novel by professional provocateur Chuck Palahniuk. Its depiction was (deliberately) exaggerated, darkly comical and, let’s be fair, quite shallow. McQueen and co-writer Abi Morgan (the ‘based on a screenplay by’ credit also suggests improvisation) have strived for realism here, crafting an unrelentingly bleak and graphic portrayal of sexual addiction. Some many find it wearing, but the director’s poetic visual style (less austere than Hunger, but no less beautiful) alleviates some of the pain. One stunning tracking shot across central Manhattan allows us to exhale, finally, but only before Brandon’s depression chokes us once more; before those interiors feed his desires.
There’s a particularly nightmarish sequence which elliptically slips through one of Brandon’s self-destructive evenings, ending on an intense threesome which feels so real that it crawls under the viewers skin and creates an unreachable itch. A blurred close-up on Fassbender’s face expresses disgust, anger and ecstasy all at once. This shot alone could have won him the Best Actor award he deservedly picked up at Venice, and it’s hopefully one of many. I hope McQueen picks up some awards too, and also composer Harry Escott (no stranger to the imprisonment theme, just check his CV), who has crafted an incredible, soaring suite for Brandon. It appears at the film’s tail ends, perhaps signifying that nothing has changed between these points. The final shot would suggest as much, although it cuts on an ambiguous note.
Shame is the best film I’ve ever seen about the loneliness of addiction; the way its habits cut the victim off from reality, and deny them the ability to engage in (or feel confident forming) relationships, especially lasting ones. It’s a film which tackles the consequences of addiction. Its hermetic and repetitive nature. The girl on the train, the bathroom break, the empty pickup. Every day. Because shame isn’t just a feeling. It’s a place where some men live.
Director: Steve McQueen
Writers: Steve McQueen, Abi Morgan
Stars: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan
Runtime: 99 minutes