No ‘Shame’ In Witnessing Bold Performances On Display

Shame:  4 out of 5
Brandon:  Slowly.
I would like to think that actor Michael Fassbender and director Steve McQueen have fun personalities when they are not on the set of their respective films.  Given the intense natures of characters that Fassbender has portrayed, particularly in regards to the two films he and McQueen have collaborated on thus far, it would be nice to know that the two also like to have a good time as fun drinking buddies for example.  Shame is certainly not a cheery film.  It takes focus on the life of a man who is burdened with a crushing addiction and is forced to abuse himself to find relief, despite the effect it has on those around him.  Before one reads more into that last statement, it should be known that sex addiction is to what I am referring and while not as horrific as possibly implied, it takes a significant toll, nonetheless.  In terms of quality cinema, it is due to the fantastic performance from Fassbender and the flashy-in-a-subtle-way direction from McQueen that this film succeeds.  Just don’t plan on walking out with a smile.

Fassbender stars as Brandon, a successful New York business man who tends to live a private life in the eyes of many.  What Brandon actually does at his work, in the big office building his desk is located in, is apparently unimportant, but we get that he’s good at what he does.  More important is how he presents himself versus who he actually is.  Signs come early as we see Brandon react worried in regards to his laptop being taken for a surprise IT check.  One thing is for sure, Brandon is lonely.  His nighttime activities (and at times during the day) may involve various ways for him to engage in sexual activities (regardless of whether he has a partner or is alone), but he is always alone in his bed, quick to take off, or quick to usher away anyone else who was involved.  It is not about fun for Brandon, it’s about scratching an itch.

Things become more complicated with the arrival of Brandon’s sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan).  After arriving home and alarmed to find that his sister has entered his apartment (to the point of being worried of a burglar and grabbing his trusty baseball bat), Brandon now finds himself with an unwelcome roommate.  Sissy has waywardness about her, but similarly shares a quality of loneliness seen in Brandon as well.  While basically homeless and in need of shelter through Brandon, Sissy does have some prospects in the form of serving as a cabaret singer in fancy night clubs.  Despite this, Sissy still manages to get in the way of Brandon’s life, as far as Brandon is concerned.  The rest of what follows is similar to a downward spiral, as Brandon’s lifestyle starts to unfold.  Fittingly, consequences arrive as well.

In their previous collaboration, Hunger, about the 1981 Irish hunger strike, Fassbender and McQueen achieved a powerful film through the use of bold, raw performances and an unflinching look at a rough situation.  I guess one can almost be thankful that this film is a bit lighter, but not by much.  In similar fashion, Shame is not a movie that cuts away from the heavier moments and lets one make up their minds.  The film is very much about showing extended sequences of emotion (yes, the downer emotions) and providing a lot of time for the viewer to really examine its lead character and the turmoil of his addiction.  At this point I will make the one mention of the fact that this film is NC-17 because of the sexual content.  A lot is certainly shown, but certainly not in a gratuitous manner; more so in the provocative, “pretentious” art house manner.

The admiration for this movie is mainly due to the two key performances.  One is obviously Fassbender, but I’ve typed “Fassbender” a lot so far, so I’m going to focus on Carey Mulligan first.  Her work as Sissy continues to show me how well she can transition into different roles (this woman really needs a comedy at some point though, to lighten things up a bit).  One spotlight scene has Sissy singing a heartbreaking rendition of “Theme from New York, New York”.  Shot in close-up, it’s a great sequence that suggests enough about who this person is.

Moving back onto Fassbender, he literally goes all out for this part.  So much emotion comes out in the way he has to play the role of a man who can successfully charm some women, while also portraying coldness in his regards to those he is simply wishing to use and disregard immediately after.  The turmoil he faces as he tries to reach his personal sense of momentary ecstasy is also well balanced against the scorn he has for himself, which manifests itself as anger towards Sissy at many moments.  The obligatory back story sequence involving these two in their younger days is not shown in this film, but there is enough implication to know that they did not have it easy.  With this in mind, it is Fassbender who emerges most successful in delivering the portrait of a troubled man in the form of a good-looking yuppie.

Despite the nature of the story and characters, director Steve McQueen does seem to get a lot of mileage out of the making of this film by having a lot of fun inserting his style into it.  McQueen is a fan of long takes, which is made clear by several scenes that are played for several minutes without a cut.  One of these sequences is set around Brandon jogging for a few blocks in New York, as he listens to classical music, another scene watches Brandon and a date interact at a restaurant.  From a technical standpoint, it is pretty interesting to watch some of these sequences (many set to a score that can be quite intense at times).  From a cinematic standpoint, there is a fitting level of rawness to the way this film has been shot.  The film manages to have an interesting type of intensity that revolves around enduring one man’s difficult struggle.

Shame was not so much a film that I embraced and more one that I found myself continually engaged in.  I would not say that there is a whole lot of depth present in the film overall and at times felt like there was a bit too much sensory overload, but with that said, it is still a very solid exotic drama of sorts.  Fine performances from the two main co-stars and a nice handle on the direction and look of the film strengthened its overall results.  Not a film I think all can view and be pleased with and not one I have to see again, but still quite good.  Additionally, I’ve seen plenty of Fassbender during 2011, but this film certainly maxed out the quota.
Sissy:  I’m trying to help you.
Brandon:  How are you helping me?


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