“Shame” is screening at the New York Film Festival on Sunday, October 9, 2011.
Directed by: Steve McQueen
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale
MPAA rating: Not yet rated (but NC-17 in all likelihood)
Run Time: 99 minutes
Michael Fassbender has seen a meteoric ascent in the last few years, not in small part due to director Steve McQueen, whose film Hunger gave Fassbender his big break. Since then he’s played diverse roles from an undercover film critic in Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” to Rochester in “Jane Eyre” to imminent supervillain Magneto in “X-Men: First Class.” With his rugged good looks made up of a strong, angular face and prominent chin, Fassbender emits a grounded, smouldering intensity. More than any other actor of this generation, he’s absolutely fearless, willing to go wherever the role takes him.
Shame takes him back to McQueen with whom Fassbender has stated he’d like to form a collaboration in the spirit of De Niro-Scorsese or Lumet-Pacino. In “Hunger,” Fassbender starved himself to drop his six-foot frame to 130 lbs. “Shame” offers up his body in a different way. Fassbender plays Brandon, a sex addict who can’t staunch his near constant arousal. This leads to more full frontal male nudity from Fassbender than you’ll see from all of Hollywood in 2011.
Brandon lives in midtown Manhattan, is a successful executive, and is much liked by his boss David (James Badge Dale). An early scene hints at what is to come. Brandon sits across the subway from a woman who finds his stare initially flattering but as he continues, seduction gives way to discomfort and finally to fear. Addiction is not knowing when to stop, and Brandon can’t keep his obsession with pornography and prostitutes and one-night stands from creeping into the rest of his life. A typical night for him is coming home, putting on a Brandenburg Concerto, having Chinese takeout with some beer, and indulging in net porn on his laptop.
Then his younger needy sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan) arrives to live with him, and though they sometimes have an easy camaraderie, he has to stifle his obsession with sex around her. That repression leads to resentment and then explosive anger. Sissy is a singer, and one of the film’s highlights is her largo rendition of “New York, New York.” Brandon’s wordless reactions create an entire world of story between the two siblings without McQueen having to add any verbal exposition.
McQueen’s style is matter-of-fact and to the point, stark yet refined. His pacing flows like music interspersing fast and slow movements. Shame is filled with tour-de-force scenes and shots: David and Brandon trying to seduce the same beautiful blond at a bar, a single long-take of Brandon and his co-worker Marianne (Nicole Beharie) in a restaurant, a single long-take of Brandon jogging across neon-lit New York avenues at night, and one amazing exchange between Brandon and Sissy when she stumbles upon him masturbating that encompasses embarrassment, amusement, playfulness, anger, fear, shame, and finally regret in a single minute.
Both Fassbender and Mulligan give stellar performances. Mulligan isn’t the cute pixie here but a wreck of a woman hiding behind a teasing facade of spontaneous outbursts. Fassbender plays Brandon not as demented or antisocial but as someone who thinks he has control of his life but fails to see that he doesn’t. He can’t deal with intimacy and he doesn’t want to. He doesn’t know he needs it.