A Reel Deal Film Review

Film Insight by Tyler Malone

December 2011

Reel Rating: 4.5 out of 5


I’ve reviewed a number of films lately that I’ve described as movies based solely around a performance: The Descendants, J. Edgar and My Week With Marilyn. These are films that contain within them an acting performance that will surely be nominated for an Oscar, and probably all deserve such a nod, but they contain little else. The movies that surround these actors feel like mere scenery in which the performance takes place. Though Shame is also another movie based solely around a wonderful performance, the same cannot be said for it. Unlike The Descendants, for example, Shame deserves its marvelous lead performance.

In fact, it’s a shame that Shame has been rated NC-17 because this ridiculous rating is only going to hurt its chances at the box office, and throughout the awards season. It deserves recognition in both forums. Though there are plenty of shots of every area deemed sexual on the human body in Shame, none of these feels unjustified. And this depiction of sex is honest, and thus, to me, is less potentially harmful than the countless Hollywood films that include violence depicted gratuitously and, one might argue, immorally. Have we really not reached the point where we can all agree that the MPAA Rating System should be gotten rid of? But I digress…

Shame, which stars Michael Fassbender as a sex addict named Brandon, is reminiscent of American Psycho, except without the murders. Well, and in tone it is tragedy instead of farce. But both are all about excess and addiction and how an overabundance of self-indulgence can have the effect of separating us from our humanity. All day and all night, Fassbender’s Brandon thinks about, watches and/or engages in sexual activity. But when his sister, played by Carrie Mulligan, enters the picture, by asking him if she can stay in his apartment for a few days, his world is turned upside-down.

Mulligan’s character, as well as every other character in the film besides Brandon, can come off as not fully formed. But this is not symptomatic of a poorly written script, these characters were intended to be blurred. This script is lovely, and even if the characters Brandon bumps up against are ambiguous, they nonetheless have interesting interactions (through which Brandon is simultaneously defined and obscured)–just witness the phenomenal dinner scene between Brandon and his co-worker on one of the most awkward dates imaginable. All the characters in the film are intentionally unknowable to us, and their relationship with Brandon never entirely clear, because our view of them is the same cold gaze of Brandon’s own eyes. We may eventually know that Sissy (Mulligan) is his sister, but we still can’t quite grasp their odd relationship. The emotions and actions of these periphery characters are foreign to us because the characters themselves are distant from us. It’s interesting that we are forced to associate ourselves with Brandon, even while we may be uncomfortable, or even disgusted, by some of his behavior. We may want to, and be tempted to, associate with the supporting cast of characters, but their unknowability doesn’t allow us this comfort. But then do we know Brandon at all either?

Shame is an unflinching look at an unknowable coldness. What has caused this sexual obsession of Brandon’s? Why is he so cruel to his sister? How has he become so distant from other people? What does a man become if he cannot connect intimately with anyone, even while constantly connecting sexually with seemingly everyone? These questions remain unanswered, even as the film veers down a somewhat melodramatic path careening towards an emotional end. If it had ended 20 minutes earlier, I think I’d like the film even more than I did (which is quite a lot)–and Shame would be getting a perfect 5 out of 5. But even with the somewhat melodramatic finale, the film never wades into the shark-infested waters of Hollywood moralizing. The sex is certainly not erotic or glamorous or titillating, but the camera doesn’t judge Brandon either. It lets Brandon indict himself (hence the title Shame, which implies a self-indictment, condemnation from within rather than without). This is perhaps never more apparent than during what I consider the best shot in the entire film–one where Brandon is in the process of achieving orgasm and a range of emotions contort his otherwise handsome face. We are forced to watch this face for what feels like far too long. In it we witness pain, pleasure, disappointment, satisfaction, anger, ecstasy, and a whole range of other things going on in Fassbender’s expressions, but there is certainly shame. But shame of what? Is it ever spelled out for us? Is there a greater shame behind what is known? And is Brandon’s dilemma that he pursues sexual gratification unceasingly, or just that it is at the detriment to every other part of his life? Shame poses a problem, and innumerable questions, but doesn’t attempt to give us any easy answers.

The only question it answers in any clear and direct manner is: “Is Michael Fassbender one of the greatest actors working today?” The answer is a resounding yes.

Shame is a film directed by Steve McQueen, and written by Steve McQueen and Abi Morgan. It stars Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan. In New York City, Brandon’s carefully cultivated private life–which allows him to indulge his sexual addiction–is disrupted when his sister Cissy arrives unannounced for an indefinite stay.


Official Site: Shame

IMDb: Shame

Written by Tyler Malone

Photography Courtesy of Fox Searchlight

Design by Jillian Mercado


Press Photo from Shame, Photography Courtesy of Fox Searchlight

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