I think the last time a film made me want-to-squirm uncomfortable was Closer, directed by Steven Soderberg. The raw parade of emotions on screen was difficult to watch.
Shame (directed by Steve McQueen, and no, it’s not the dead actor) leaves it far, far behind. Brandon (Michael Fassbender) is a quiet, unassuming man who is hiding a dirty, disgusting secret side of him that he hides so well, it’s effortless. The only one who sees through the charade is his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) and that’s only because she, well, finds the evidence that he was careless enough to leave lying around his apartment. Or maybe it’s just because she’s nosey.
Brandon, you see, is a sex addict.
Porn proliferates on his lap top. He has magazines, uses prostitutes, picks up women in bars and bangs them in dark alleyways near the river. It’s never given a name, but it very clearly is an addiction, one that, over the course of the film, he begins to realize he has.
Sissy has her own problems, not the least of which she tends to latch on to unavailable men. While she tries to deal with them, makes at least the half-hearted effort to fix what’s broken, Brandon isn’t the least bit interested in finding redemption.
You’d think the hard part about watching Shame would be the bordering on pornographic depictions of sex. Nudity abounds, but the way its presented, you feel like a voyeur. Walking around naked in his apartment just happens to be the way Brandon prefers to go about things. It’s not his fault you walked in on it.
No, the hard part wasn’t the sex (although if you’re even slightly prudish, don’t see this movie. It’s rated NC-17 for a reason). It was watching Sissy try, and fail, again and again to reach Brandon. It was seeing Brandon realize that maybe, just maybe, he’s a little fucked up, and then reason with himself that hey, it’s not affecting his ability to function, so no, he doesn’t have a problem. Fassbender’s Brandon is so self-contained, watching him break down feels disturbingly like a private moment, where all you want to do is offer comfort, and yet you can’t bring yourself to do it because let’s face it, he’s a monster that just happens to look like a rather attractive 30-something man.
There’s been much speculation as to what the title of the film refers to. Is Brandon ashamed of himself, of his behavior? Or is it part of the oft-used question “Have you no shame?” From the climax, it would seem to be the latter. He has none. And then you watch the aftermath of his choices and you wonder if that’s what it takes for him to find that sense of shame.
While Mulligan once again proves she’s well worth watching (I loved her in An Education), Shame is all about Fassbender. The man has a tendency to pick his roles with care, often with surprising results (Jane Eyre versus X-Men: First Class? He was an awesome Rochester. Not so much Magneto). If you find yourself recoiling at the sight of him, if the thought of him being in the same room as you repulses you, congratulations. He’s done his job. A most excellent job it was, too.
Shame is playing in select cities nationwide.