This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Ken Riley’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
Note: this is an in-depth review and I will be discussing in detail some of the more explicit points/themes of the film so if you are easily offended by such things, you've been warned
Brandon lives alone in a sterile New York City apartment. He has a well-paying job and a steady social life. He seems lonely, but his existence is functional. Brandon is also a sex addict. Shame, the second film from Steve McQueen following Hunger (2008), which also starred Michael Fassbender, has been described as a modern-day Taxi Driver (1976). While the film lives up to this distinction, I also found parallels with Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut (1999), in which a man is prompted by his wife's past infidelity to seek sex outside the bedroom, and finds himself in some frightening, and bizarre, situations. However, whereas Tom Cruise's character in "Eyes" merely flirted with the dark side of human sexuality, Fassbender, as Brandon Sullivan, dives headlong into it. He is fascinating to watch, utterly committed to the character and at the full mercy of his director. Luckily, that director didn't let him down.
In the morning, Brandon Sullivan wakes up and masturbates in the shower. He takes the subway to his office job and finds that his computer has been taken away for maintenance due to a virus. He fantasizes about a female coworker with whom, we assume, he hasn't yet established contact. After a staff meeting he goes into the bathroom and masturbates again. At the end of the day he returns home, sits down to the table with Chinese takeout and views pornography on his laptop. Then he goes to bed. This, for the most part, is Brandon's life. That is until he returns home one night to find that his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), has moved in. "How did you get in here?" he asks. She reminds him, "You gave me a key." She has no place else to go and convinces Brandon to let her stay awhile, just until she can find her own place. Thus begins Brandon's inevitable descent into the darkest places his insatiable addiction will take him.
A film addressing such an issue as sex addiction could have easily existed merely for the purpose of exploiting it, its only real objective being to show us exposed skin. Shame is not that movie. As can be expected, the NC-17 rating may deter certain viewers from ever seeing the film, but Shame earns the rating because of the simple, fundamental fact that McQueen refuses to shy away from any and all explicit content inherent to the subject matter. Yes, there is full-frontal nudity. Yes, there is graphic sex. But McQueen sets this up early on, signaling us that these things go along with the territory and that he won't look away just to spare a few prudent viewers the embarrassment. If you don't like what you see, stop watching. Simple as that. As for the rest of us, hopefully we can leave the film with a deeper understanding of and a greater sympathy for others. Maybe some will feel compelled to consider first the dynamics of other people's suffering before pointing fingers or passing judgments. One can only hope.
I have a sneaking feeling that Shame may be even more important than it appears at the outset. In Roger Ebert's review of the film he recalled how, when the concept of sex addiction was first being discussed, most people's initial reaction was to laugh or poke fun; they thought it was a joke. I imagine there are people today who still find the concept of sex addiction laughable, but it's real, as real as addiction to drugs or alcohol or gambling, and just as destructive, if not more. Shame understands this and shows us a profoundly devastating view of sex addiction, presenting it like an undiagnosed disease, slowly but surely gnawing away at the humanity of its victim. Never before has this particular subject been so honestly or intelligently portrayed in a film, with sensitivity, compassion, and a dogged refusal to turn away from unpleasantness. In this sense, Shame is an important social commentary for the world we live in today, when sex figures into every other television commercial and pornography is readily available to anyone of any age with computer and internet access.
Serious addiction, like the one depicted in Shame, is an insidious and elusive creature, potentially crippling in its effects on sufferers, and always present. Fassbender plays Brandon as a victim, a man trapped in his own mental and emotional prison. This is the right approach to the character, I think. When you get right down to it, he is a victim, and he does occupy his own prison. Sex is not pleasurable for him; it is a necessity, carried out routinely and with no real ceremony. There is a scene relatively late in the film that brilliantly illustrates Brandon's predicament: he and Marianne (Nicole Beharie), a coworker he's been seeing, are in a high-rise apartment room. They are about to make love when Brandon finds he is unable to achieve an erection. The problem is that there are genuine feelings between he and Marianne. Whether they're mutual is left to question. Brandon sits with his back to her, frustrated and embarrassed. She asks if she should go and he tells her yes. Then we abruptly cut to the same apartment room later that day: Brandon is having sex with a prostitute. Once he's finished he collapses to the floor, and the prostitute dresses and leaves. Then we cut once more to the same apartment room even later still that same day: it is evening now and Brandon sits on the edge of the bed, alone, back to us, looking out floor-to-ceiling windows at the setting sun. All of that in just one scene consisting of less than ten individual camera set-ups. That's economy. Deceptively simple, yes, but some times the most inventive things are.
This particular material, as it is handled by McQueen, is strangely disarming. He cuts through the bullshit most movies depend on milking for two hours, and wins powerful performances from his cast, especially Fassbender and Mulligan. His matter-of-fact approach to the subject matter achieves a certain exhilaration, like a much needed wake-up call addressed to those many movies that seem to be dominating the current marketplace: you know the ones, all surface appeal and never entirely willing to commit wholeheartedly to a meaningful idea out of the fear they may alienate their audience - the effect of too many movies like this is not unlike that of addiction; they leave us feeling used up and strung out, wandering back home to our Entertainment Weekly's in hopes of finding a better film for our next visit to the multiplex. Shame is a thoughtful film with meaningful ideas. It doesn't seek to alienate its audience, nor does it go out of its way to please it. McQueen has a story to tell and thoughts to communicate, and he does this on his own terms. As moviegoers, I believe we should be thankful for the good movies that come along, and treasure the great ones. If a filmmaker is a visionary then he must be allowed to express his vision. If you don't like a movie, fine. Complain about it all you want, but don't start a petition to have it changed simply because it doesn't adhere to your idea of a good movie. (Okay, enough said about that.)
Anyone who's serious about movies (and anyone who's not for that matter) should see this one. Don't let aforementioned statements like "social commentary" make you think of Shame as simply that and nothing more; as much as the film has to say, it never presents itself as moral statement and it is never preachy. The film's only objective is to show us a character with a particular problem and to show it honestly and without criticism. That is all. What we make of it, or don't make of it, is entirely up to us. Much could be said of Steve McQueen's talent as a director; his gifted way with actors, his frequent and methodical use of long, unbroken takes, and so on and so on. But to shower him with perfunctory praise would be to not do him justice. This is partly because McQueen's greatest attribute as a director is his subtlety. His camera never impedes on the action, nor does it call attention to itself. It is simply there to observe. Entire scenes play out in a single shot; McQueen doesn't use three camera set-ups when one will suffice. His approach is simple and yet curiously intricate; consider the scenes of the girl on the subway (Lucy Walters), which are essentially used as bookends to chart Brandon's progress over the course of the film (in the beginning, when he first sees her, Brandon chases after her; when he sees her again in the end, he only stares). Shame is an invigorating film because it makes us feel. Something, anything. And in a marketplace dominated by mindless summer blockbusters that have little or nothing useful to say, that is a rare quality in itself. Sure, you may not feel cleaner when the film is over, but you should feel more alive, much the way one feels if walking in bitter rain; you feel alive simply because you can feel. That is the effect of Shame.