Shame (2011) Or Who the Hell is Steve McQueen?


So far, my movie of the year.
So far, my movie of the year.

Genre: Drama

Starring: Michael Fassbender (Prometheus • Fish Tank), Carey Mulligan (DriveAn Education)

Directed By: Steve McQueen (Hunger12 Years a Slave)

Overview: The character study of a sexual addict living in New York and his relationship with his sister.

Feel free to click here to skip the spoiler bit at the beginning.

This paragraph is strictly for those who’ve seen the film, who never plan on seeing the film, or who don’t mind every hook, line and twister being ruined before they see it (you people are weird)...
Click here to skip the spoiler bit.

Shame opens with a red-haired woman on a subway, enticed by Brandon’s gaze. When she leaves, she flees, her ring finger prominently displaying the reason for her flight. Brandon chases, knowing she won’t be able to resist his temptation, but loses her. Over the next 100 minutes, we learn of Brandon’s ordeals and issues and, in the final scene, he again runs into that same red-haired woman. This time she is inviting, but Brandon is in a far different state of mind. His sister has barely survived a suicide and he knows his sexual addition - his shame - is partly responsible for her attempt. He looks up at the redhead and the film fades to credits, forever leaving us with the question of whether or not he’s grown and will refuse her, or if he will continue to be the sexual addict that we’ve learned of all this time.

To me it’s an incredibly satisfying ending, not because it asks a question we don’t quite know the answer to - a moral cliff-hanger, if you will – but because I can answer the question with absolute certainty: of course he goes to her. Naturally a man who has been brought to the brink of a chasm of anguish will take comfort in the thing he loves and understands most. Certainly a man in the throes of depression will chose instead to be in the throes of passion. Knowing that he could have this woman without a chase is not the satisfaction he seeks. Brandon does not derive pleasure from winning, he gets it from fucking, and it's unfinished business. It’s possible that this woman will provide the sex that will give Brandon his moment of clarity, will give him enough center and catharsis to work towards overcoming his addiction, but not banging a married woman in his depression is not hitting bottom; going through with it is. But all that comes after the sex with this woman is just guessing. What’s knowing is that that subway train redhead is a Godsend, the pure symbol of relief, of release and of rebirth that Brandon needs right now. Resisting that? No Sir, not Brandon - not in a million years.

Often silent, but always telling.Often silent, but always telling.

 Sometimes it’s hard to write a compelling Overview of a character study film, mostly because they don’t tend to have plots. As a matter of fact, I commented to my guest how much Shame felt like a tightly-plotted film because the events of the life we followed built our character so well. Those of you who are leery of potentially boring character studies need not worry with Shame, because - simply put - it’s a masterpiece.

Brandon (Michael Fassbender) is an executive who lives in New York. He is a nymphomaniacal sexual addict, taking pleasure in lust as often as possible. Whether it’s the first thing in the morning in the shower, in a second apartment he owns near his work, on his computer the moment he gets home, or the last thing at night after a pick-up in a bar, Brandon’s life is sex. Add that he’s a suave, attractive, confident man, and he has no problem meeting the women who will gratify his addiction. When his sister, Sissy (the cute Carey Mulligan) visits and asks if she can stay for a couple of days, her presence rattles up his lifestyle.
What I liked most of all in Shame, aside from the incredible cinematography, the perfect acting and the beautifully minimal script – is the mystery of it. With a title like Shame, from the very beginning we wonder what or whom the notable shame is or will be, or perhaps it’s a sarcastic irony our director is playing on the audience meant to keep us guessing. Either way, the film begins with, is full of and ends with questions. Not frustrating Lynch-film questions like “What’s going on?”, but curiosity-inspiring questions like, “what did that look mean?” and “what will he do because of that?” And director Steve McQueen tugs us along perfectly throughout.
Oh look, another perfect scene.
Oh look, another perfect scene.
Shame is just my kind of movie. It lives in the long-take, often keeping the static camera rolling for the entire scene. It’s a perfect way of planting us firmly there, in the moment. One great example has Brandon running to a crisis. When he gets into the elevator, instead of cutting to the next scene the camera stays on him for the entire grueling ride as he paces back and forth, waiting to get to his floor. McQueen creates a tension through moments like these with extreme close-ups and long takes that glues us to the screen. Unlike the excellent Shortbus, Shame is never pornographic, yet it nonetheless lets us experience the full range of emotion that comes from Brandon’s sensuality, excess and sin. Without the talent behind the characters, Shame could have easily failed. The way Fassbender tells Brandon’s story alone makes the film worthy of high praise. His acting is perfection and in nearly every scene his wordless motivations are loud and clear from second to second. Carey Mulligan plays Brandon’s sister, a young and talented woman who’s often a flirty and immature pixie. James Badge Dale ("24""The Pacific") plays David, Brandon’s not-so-professional boss. He’s a wonderful character, and though he seems a juxtaposition and perhaps even a caricature of Brandon, he adds this hint of a believable yet farcical element that offsets Brandon’s Übermensch.
Then, once that last scene fades to black and after all is said and done, Shame stays. It’s not just the terrific ending that inspires us to discuss Brandon’s motivations and character; because there’s so little exposition, this is the kind of movie that just wants to be talked about. Any scene you might have been vague on, any mild spark of insight you deftly caught, any of the frequent shocks of genius that you found McQueen carefully crafted, there’s just something about Shame that inspires analysis and exploration. Its superb acting and direction is what makes this special. I couldn't help but repeat the words "they just don't make movies like this anymore." It mysterious and well-paced atmosphere is what keeps it in your mind for days. For that reason I’d say it would be a perfect first date movie. It’s what both of you are thinking anyway; and who knows, maybe you’ll get lucky.

Oh and there's some sex in it too.
Oh and there's some sex in it too.

Performance: 9 Cinematography: 9 Script: 8 Plot: 9 Mood: 10

Overall Rating: 90% (No Shame In Sharing This Masterpiece)

Steven Rodney "Steve" McQueen is the name of someone destined to have a life in Cinema. The London-born, Ansterdam-living director of Grenadian descent, his 2008 Hunger won the prize for Best First Feature film at Cannes, The Caméra d'Or. Shame has not only reminded me why I do this toiling through cinema thing yet time and again, but it’s reminded me that my study guide that is the 1001 List is good and great, especially since this would have otherwise gone under my radar. Shame has also inspired me to explore Steve McQueen’s other works, Hunger and 12 Years a Slave. I'm sure I'll not be disappointed.

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