Director: Steve McQueen
Cast:Carey Mulligan, Michael Fassbender
Running Time: 99 min
An average man thinks of sex every seven seconds. Or is it every three minutes? Though the details tend to vary, we’ve all heard the adage revealing mans active cerebral sex life. And like so many old clichés, it’s completely unfounded. But what if sex really was all you could think about? To the detriment of your professional life, your relationships, your ability to connect with other human beings? Artist / director Steve McQueen explores these questions with his sophomore release, the wistful and atmospheric character study Shame.
Michael Fassbender plays Brandon Sullivan, a man who to most around him seems like a well-adjusted everyman. Yet inside he is corrupted by a neanderthal like sex drive, emotional unavailability and toxic self loathing. His struggles with these issues come to a head when his sister Sissy (Cary Mulligan) comes to stay. Much like Brandon, Sissy has deep-rooted issues of her own that surface as the film develops and tensions with her brother rise.
At its core, Shame is an intimate examination of a man incapable of intimacy. Fassbender portrays Brandon as an addict, a man going through the motions of life, yet constantly in need of a fix. The character is far from a shell however and is clearly troubled by his addiction. This is magnified when held in contrast with his serial adulterer boss David, a man who seemingly feels no remorse for his own sexual corruption. Sissy acts as both a release and a counter thesis for Brandon, who projects his own disgust at sex onto her. Sissy herself is searching for real emotional connection, rather than the physical that Brandon craves. Fassbender’s performance as Brandon is top notch and suitably physical, though he has plenty to work with in the role. The real stand out performance however is Mulligan’s melancholy turn as the bipolar Sissy. And yes, they both have their nude scenes (many in the male lead’s case), which I’m sure will afford many audience members the opportunity to ponder perversions of their own.
Shame is a sparse and mostly quiet meditation on the relationships of its characters. It resists being either shy or gratuitous in its portrayal of sex, but is certainly vivid. McQueen shows restraint in all aspects of his filmmaking, and his use of cinematography and the cinematic frame is unique and compliments his work excellently. That said, his fetish for off center shots and distinctive framing starts to become noticeably repetitive. The gentle soundtrack and use of punctuating silence is applied to terrific effect, with greater sincerity that 2011’s other quiet picture, Drive. All of these elements come together to lend Shame a stirring sense of unease, most noticeably in scenes like Carrie Mulligan hypnotizing performance of ‘New York, New York’, mid way through the film.
Shame is a brisk and character focused tale, less minimalist than McQueen’s first release Hunger, though in many ways equally as restrained. The film is hauntingly atmospheric, and ever so slightly distressing. Shame isn’t quite a revelation, but serves as a compelling and respectful meditation on human needs.