It wouldn’t be surprising if you’d never heard of Shame; as it involves realistic sex and sexuality the Motion Picture Association of America — in their infinite wisdom — have given it an NC-17 rating, thus clamping down severely on he locations where it may be promoted, let alone screened. If only the film spent its time vivisecting co-eds they could have aired clips between prime-time television shows. As it stands, it falls on people like me to get the word out about one of the most powerful, emotionally raw films of the year.
It wouldn’t be incorrect to call Brandon (Michael Fassbender) a sex addict, but it would be slightly unfair. True, he acts compulsively, but his real problem is that he’s pathologically incapable of an emotional connection. Pornography and illicit, anonymous sex aren’t really his addiction; they’re just all he has. An iconic scene from American Psycho shows Patrick Bateman gazing at himself while in bed with a pair of prostitutes; Brandon has a similar scene, but he hates what he sees even though he can’t bring himself to look away.
Despite this, Brandon has cobbled together a relatively comfortable life. He works for a nameless Manhattan business doing something that’s never quite defined. It pays him fairly well, though it seems he spends at least as much time downloading pornography from the internet and daydreaming about one of his more attractive coworkers (Nicole Beharie) as he does actually working. His boss (James Badge Dale) is the sort of ultimately harmless douchebag who futilely hits on women while wearing his wedding ring.
But this tenuous equilibrium comes crashing down when Brandon’s sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), shows up. Sissy is as desperate for emotional contact as Brandon is incapable of giving it; one night she weeps into her phone about how much she loves one man, and the next she falls into bed — Brandon’s bed — with Brandon’s boss. With their symmetric flaws, it seems apparent that Brandon and Sissy were both forged in the same furnace, of which writers Abi Morgan and Steve McQueen — who also directs — wisely avoid getting into beyond noting that these are not bad people, they just come from a bad place.
Fassbender has already garnered praise for his performance, and rightly so. Emotionally raw, he carefully walks us from Brandon’s initial balance up to his eventual breaking point, and beyond. McQueen lets him communicate at least half the role with his face, and Fassbender more than meets the challenge. His nuance extends down to the faint accent of a man who moved from Ireland to New Jersey as a child.
Mulligan is similarly detailed and effective in her performance, but — as in her most recent appearance in Drive and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps — she is mostly here as a foil for Fassbender’s male lead. This is sort of a disappointment after her turns in the spotlight in An Education and Never Let Me Go, and I fear that the same fate will befall her in her turn as Daisy in Baz Luhrmann’s upcoming adaptation of The Great Gatsby.
It would be far too easy to react with disgust to Brandon, or with schoolboy giggles. McQueen challenges us to empathize with this deeply fractured person, if only because he, too, is human.
Worth It: definitely.
Bechdel Test: fail.