THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
Michael Fassbender is ready to hook up.
Few American movies have the guts to be about sex anymore. In the 1970s, Hollywood wasn't afraid of the subject; it even embraced sex. Audiences lined up for pictures like Last Tango in Paris and Carnal Knowledge. They were willing to explore the most personal of issues in the most public of forums. Somewhere along the way, our society got more prudish about sexuality. The exaggerated, American Pie kind is fine and dandy these days, but genuine, mature movies about sex are extremely hard to find. That's what makes Shame feel so revelatory. Director Steve McQueen's drama is not just about sex, it's about bad sex – the kind that makes you feel all empty inside. Armed with a well-earned NC-17 rating, Shame takes a good hard look at how uncontrolled urges can ultimately tear a person apart.
Michael Fassbender plays Brandon Sullivan, a sex addict who uses New York City as his playground. He trolls for women on the subways, hires prostitutes, and has a computer full of porn. His days are dictated by his impulses, with schedules subject to change at a second's notice. Brandon seems reasonably content with his life (or, at least, resigned to it) until his sister Cissy (Carey Mulligan) comes to stay with him. She's got her own issues, and her presence makes him immediately uncomfortable. Suddenly, there is someone around to see what he's doing. He can no longer leave his computer open or abruptly invite a woman to his apartment. Nor can he have...um...a private moment with himself. The longer Cissy stays around, the more desperate and erratic Brandon becomes. Eventually he falls into a self-destructive spiral from which there may or may not be a way back. He was on that road anyway; his sister's presence merely speeds it up.
Shame examines the intersection of untamed sexuality and emotional disconnectedness. For whatever reason, Brandon doesn't do well with emotions. He doesn't convey them, and he either can't or won't acknowledge them in others. (Cissy repeatedly admonishes him for ignoring her calls.) Sex, for him, is more than just an activity; it's a coping skill. Porn and prostitutes and anonymous women are the things that allow him to avoid having actual feelings. When something is wrong in his life, he simply seeks out sexual pleasure. For him, the only emotions worth experiencing are lust and ecstasy. There's a long, unbroken scene about halfway through the movie in which Brandon takes a co-worker on a date. You can see his frustration grow as things don't go the way he's used to navigating them. He knows how to be charming and flirtatious, but at a certain point his skills dry up. We sense that he may have gotten this way because seducing a woman is simply easier for him than romancing one.
To be honest, I didn't realize how good Shame was until the third act. The film is a character study; as such, there are many scenes that initially seem to have little purpose. As he did in his previous film, Hunger, McQueen uses long, steady takes that sometimes run on for several minutes. Why we're seeing certain events isn't always clear. Then, when Brandon starts his downward spiral, all the things we've seen pay off. The themes of the film start to come into focus. As his life grows more complicated, Brandon turns to his sole coping skill, and that in turn makes everything even more complicated. McQueen, working from a screenplay he co-wrote with Abi Morgan (the excellent BBC series “The Hour”), examines self-destructiveness with a precision that is fascinating. Shame is very smart about the cycle of its titular subject, which has a way of perpetuating itself to such a degree that the sufferer can scarcely control it. You feel bad, and then feel bad about feeling bad.
There's no doubt that the film is very graphic, yet it incorporates explicit sex in a legitimate artistic way. Shame is like Leaving Las Vegas with sex instead of alcohol, Requiem for a Dream with fornication instead of drugs. Sex is the vice that's destroying Brandon's life. There is no attempt to glamorize the subject matter; in fact, quite the opposite. McQueen makes the sex distinctly un-sexy. Nothing titillating happens here. I think that's one of the movie's biggest strengths. It shows the character's wanton lifestyle as a way of helping you understand his downfall. You almost feel like you're a fly on the wall at times. Uncomfortable? Yes, but also necessary to truly grasp Brandon's journey.
Michael Fassbender gives one of the bravest, most fearless performances I've seen in years – not just because he's physically naked, but also because he's emotionally naked. To play a man who is falling apart, an actor must essentially fall apart while the cameras roll. Fassbender falls apart beautifully. All the anguish and pain Brandon pushes down is right there on the screen. Near the end, there is a moment when we see a close-up of the character's face. The expression he registers is the opposite of the one we expect. It is a stunning scene, brilliantly played by Fassbender, that takes you right into the tortured soul of a man.
Shame is exquisitely photographed and edited. The supporting performance from Carey Mulligan is also tops. There is much to admire. This is an accomplished movie that also happens to be very raw and graphic. I mentioned Leaving Las Vegas and Requiem for a Dream. Like those pictures, Shame is not always easy to watch. Seeing a person's life go down the drain can be exhausting. But the other thing all three films have in common is that they are indispensable portraits of decay, of the way a life can be taken over by too much reliance on an emotional crutch. No one will accuse Shame of being a “fun” movie, but it impacted me significantly, and I haven't been able to shake it off.
( out of four)
Shame is rated NC-17 for some explicit strong sexual content. The running time is 1 hour and 39 minutes.
Buy a copy of my book, "Straight-Up Blatant: Musings From The Aisle Seat," on sale now at Lulu.com!