Anthony Le’s review published on Letterboxd:
Part of Essential Films To Watch
"We’re not bad people, we just come from a bad place."
Including Shame, I've now seen 10 Michael Fassbender films, and I'm glad to say he's been incredible in every role he's taken. He truly is a world class actor, a once-in-a-generation type of guy. And Shame, though relatively early in his career, should be documented as the crowning achievement for a magnificent actor - I can't foresee any performance - past, present or future - that could possibly stun more than his dedicated portrayal of Brandon Sullivan in Steve McQueen's 21st century masterpiece, which is only rivaled by Derek Cianfrance's Blue Valentine as movie of the century thus far. And in a way, the two films are similar in their portrayals of damaged characters, but McQueen's film is perhaps even more bleak and unsettling than Cianfrance's grim Valentine.
Shame opens with a beautiful, sweeping soundtrack, that's definitely fitting for such an epic film - yes, an epic that sits at only 101 minutes; compressed, though never compromising its emotional ferocity. McQueen is the king of characterization, and analyzing the flaws of human beings without being judgmental in his direction - first with Bobby Sands, then with Brandon Sullivan, and most recently, Solomon Northup. Sands is more than just a prisoner, Sullivan is more than his addiction, and Northup more than purely a slave - their portrayals are similar in one fashion, and that is that they're presented as human beings. Often, films allow films, and the story to shape the characters, their actions and their tendencies. But, what McQueen does, is allows the characters respect to be independent from the story, which results in rich, in-depth characters.
Rarely is a there a character study that's done this well. I dare say it, this is one of the best character studies of all time. And why? Because it doesn't necessarily only revolve around addiction, which ultimately makes the segments that do even more powerful because of their scarcity. Think of it this way - if something comes easily and plentifully, will it hold as much resonance as if the object if rare, and in a sense, mythologized? There's a sweeping beauty in Fassbender's troubled character because he appears as more than just his addiction - he is a man with a sister, a man with morals, and a man with a life outside his addiction, which is only a minor part of his personality. Too often, individuals condemn others because of their addictions by assuming that it's done through personal weakness, or a flaw in moral judgment, but McQueen quickly dispels that myth. Brandon is a man that takes steps to get better, yet can't seem to overcome his adversity. Further, McQueen suggests this: though his addition does exist, and in some instances it drives him away from others and affects them negatively, Brandon is more than his addiction, which is a message rarely seen in film, even ones that deal with addiction directly.
Another fascinating point to be taken from McQueen's film is the gradual shift towards self-dependency, and the global trend in a reduction of interdependency. It seems, almost daily, that this world is becoming less and less intertwined, and instead, everybody has their own, busy lives to take care of. Everything seems impersonal - especially in a city like New York City, where so many people, busy with work or otherwise, pass by each other without knowing, or even caring, what the people passing them are thinking or feeling. In Shame, we see that play out directly - Brandon isn't necessarily isolated from the rest of the world, yet no one seems to notice, or take notice of his addiction. And subsequently, when Sissy comes into his life, Brandon can't cope with having his sister stay with him for a few days, because of the normalized state of independence that he's used to in his life. The biggest crime, as McQueen seems to suggest, is the solitary nature which is slowly becoming the norm. Sissy could help Brandon, and Brandon could help her, but ultimately, once the film draws to a conclusion, we witness the disastrous results of this solitary, impersonal state that each character has assumed.
Shame is about as complex as a film gets. And McQueen achieves it through raw performances from his actors, great characterization and an engaging storyline. And, it doesn't need long to do it either, sitting at only 101 minutes, Shame pretty much blows every other film out of the water when it comes to depth of character and depth of, well, everything. I didn't even bother to comment on the performances of Fassbender or Mulligan much because it's been covered before, but these are the best performances they've give their entire careers. Shame depicts hell-on-earth for its lead protagonist, Brandon, and the steps he takes to get out of that hell - but even more importantly, it simply shows Brandon as a human, a characters who always has been, is, and will be more than just his addiction.