Friday, August 9, 2013


Director: Steve McQueen
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan

2011 was THE breakout year for Michael Fassbender.  Rare is it to have such a tremendous burst into the collective Hollywood consciousness, but he managed to do it with the help of a comic book summer blockbuster, a costume drama (two, actually), and Shame, an intense, gritty indie film.  Shame already had a check or three in the plus column for me, as even before going in, I found Fassbender rather attractive and I knew him to be tremendously talented.  After watching Shame, I’ll say two things.  One: my crush has now only gotten bigger (and undoubtedly colored my reaction to the film, all things being fair) and two: I knew the man had talent, but I really had no idea how MUCH talent.

Brandon (Fassbender) is a New Yorker working in an unspecified and rather generic job where he earns good money so that he can pay for his nice apartment and fuel his sex addiction.  His boss is a douche bag, but also the closest thing he has to a friend, which isn’t saying much.  When his younger sister Sissy (Mulligan), a freewheeling singer who can’t quite seem to get a grip on her life, unexpectedly crashes at his flat, Brandon’s efforts to keep his controlled life in place begin to crumble.

I had certain expectations about Shame before I finally popped it into the DVD player, and they were due to two things.  One: this film is rated NC-17.  That means sexually explicit content (because you can have all the violence you want and that’s fine – show a penis in a non-comedic manner, and it’s NC-17).  Two: other reviews I had glanced at of Shame and the cover sleeve from Netflix, both of which reference Brandon’s sex addiction.  In my head, I thought this was going to be a movie where I would see far too many uncomfortable scenes of Michael Fassbender jerking off.  But Shame surprised me.  Yes, there is sex, yes, there is Michael Fassbender’s penis, and yes, there are a few scenes where Brandon is jerking off, but, as weird as this sounds, there wasn’t as much sex in it as I thought there would be. 

In other words, I was preparing myself for ugly rotten intense guilty angry sex in nearly every other scene, to the point where I figured it would be gratuitous.  What I got was one of the most intense character dramas I’ve seen in quite some time – and honestly, I felt none of the sex scenes were gratuitous in the least.  In fact, the rest of my review has NOTHING to do with the sex scenes at all.

This movie is all about Brandon.  This movie is all about Michael Fassbender.  The entire story is told from his perspective.  The camera only ever knows what Brandon knows, sees what Brandon sees.  We are locked completely and utterly in his head, and in a lesser film and in the hands of a lesser actor, that would be a rather boring place to be.  Not so in Shame.  Shame shines because Brandon is a fully formed character played with smart subtlety by a fantastic actor.

How brilliant do I think Fassbender is as Brandon?  Let me put it this way.  Fassbender takes a character who is a sex addict, who snorts cocaine, who has some obvious anger issues and a very ugly violent tendency – all in all, rather unlikeable traits – and makes me sympathize with him.  For all of Brandon’s deep flaws, Fassbender made me weep for him.  How?  It’s in the way he is too buttoned up, too controlling, too timid.  His boss, his “friend,” is quite opposite, as he openly hits on women (while maintaining a wife and kids, by the by) and talks comfortably with anyone he meets.  I can read Brandon’s jealousy and idol worship of his boss’ behavior, how he wishes so desperately he could be that loose and free.  In one heartbreaking tiny touch, his boss slightly tucks Brandon’s scarf back into the inside of his coat, as if to say to Brandon, “You can’t be looking mussed, now, can you.”  It’s the smallest of gestures, and it comes across as both affectionate and mocking, as if the boss knows that yes, Brandon would hate to have the scarf out of place, and isn’t that just rather ridiculous.  I can also read the disgust he has for his boss when said boss insists on hitting on all skirts, including Sissy, that cross his path.  Like so much in his life, Brandon both loves and hates his boss. 

There is a sequence in the film where we finally see Brandon unbutton himself, and it is unpleasant.  Much has been made of the threesome sex scene that ends the sequence, but for me, the most telling part of the scene is where Brandon hits on a girl in a bar while her boyfriend is just the other side of the room.  It’s how Brandon speaks to her – openly, aggressively, filthily – that is most shocking in this entire sequence of events, for this is not the Brandon I have seen thus far.  This is Brandon letting his addiction control him, the thing he’s been working so hard, exerting so much energy, to avoid doing.  He cannot contain it any longer, and it turns him into someone much uglier.  It’s his personality in this scene that retroactively helps me to understand why he puts so much energy into controlling his addiction.  He does not WANT to be this person – you can read the shame and hate underneath the surface as he relentlessly speaks to the girl in the bar – but he will become Mr. Hyde unless he controls himself.

So, then, why did Brandon unbutton himself?  Sissy.  As the film progresses, it becomes clear that Sissy is a trigger for Brandon.  She, like his boss, is open, expressive, easy, flighty, everything he is not.  There is deep affection there, but also a great deal of tension.  And after a crippling discussion where Brandon tells her she is a weight around his neck, that is when they both break – he in his way, she in hers.  Director McQueen hints, in no uncertain terms, of unresolved sexual tension between the siblings.  The first time we meet Sissy, she is naked in the shower, and after a dialogue exchange, the in-scene music proclaims “I Want Your Love.”  Later, when Sissy walks in on Brandon unexpectedly, he reacts badly, but not before giving us more than a bit of unbridled heat.  My read on the film, one I am certain I am not alone on, is that Brandon’s deep affection for his sister conflicts with his sex addiction, giving him feelings that he knows are inappropriate and can never be acted upon.  However, the longer Sissy stays with him, the more energy he has to exert to keep those appetites at bay, and the more he sees her, the more he hates both her and himself.

For the part of Sissy, Carey Mulligan turns in a very good performance.  She is honest and open, but she has less to do than Fassbender and did not, pardon the pun, blow me away the way Fassbender did.  Compared with the brutal three dimensionality of Brandon, Sissy is a bit more expected, a bit less surprising, a bit more two dimensional.  The absolutely lovely and poignant scene where she sings “New York, New York” is her shining moment, no doubt.  Chip from Tips from Chip mentioned in a comment that he could “read” Sissy’s storyline in advance, and I somewhat agree here, which is not to say it’s not an effective storyline, but it lacks the surprising nature of Brandon’s journey.  What amazes me about Fassbender’s Brandon is that he was constantly surprising me, and I really respond to that; Sissy was good, and an effective foil to Brandon, but her actions were more expected.

McQueen favors uncomfortably long takes with a mostly static camera that moves only as much as it has to.  Like Ozu, there are many scenes where characters enter and exit the space and the camera simply waits for them to appear and run their course.  The long takes are exquisite, and an excellent reminder that one can make an interesting, gripping film without cutting every five seconds.  Jean Luc Godard is quoted as saying “Every edit is a lie.”  McQueen takes this as a challenge, and counters with long takes that imbue verisimilitude to Shame.  The protracted shots mean awkward conversations full of fidgeting that allow me to see all of Brandon’s contrasting emotions.  McQueen doesn’t cut away from the somewhat embarrassing pauses in chit chat, which in turn makes the situation feel uncomfortably real.  It also utterly hypnotizes me, captures me in the scene, and I am locked in.  When you add in the fact that the film looks absolutely gorgeous, full of golds and greys and blues, I admire Shame not only for its fascinating characterization but also being a damn fine film to look at.

My heart breaks for Brandon.  It shatters into a million pieces.  How he’s far too compliant in the restaurant scene, simply agreeing to everything the waiter suggests, and then how he later becomes aggressively cruel to Sissy.  I love how, by the end of the film, I feel as though I was getting closer and closer to understanding Brandon, and yet he was still surprising me.  And honestly, the last thing I ever expected before seeing Shame was feeling this sense of sympathy for the main character.  The fact that the Academy didn’t even nominate Fassbender’s staggering performance here is utter crap (although I can “understand” it from the Academy-being-political-in-its-decisions vantage point and the film’s NC-17 rating) (still a crap decision, though).  Shame is precisely the sort of intense, small, character-driven drama that I just adore, and I now want to seek out more from Steve McQueen. 

Arbitrary Rating: 10/10.  And I don’t normally give a 10 to a film I just saw for the first time mere hours ago.  But Shame?  Crap.  It earned it.


  1. Well, you liked this film far more than I did. I can tell it's because of your connection to the main character. I found nothing in him to make me feel sorry for him, but that's probably because I've never been a believer in the whole "sex addiction" thing. Does sex feel great? Of course. And who wouldn't want to feel great as often as possible? It's not an "addiction"; it's simply a weak will and/or extreme narcissism, neither of which I like. But my opinion isn't the popular opinion in our culture today.

    I agree with you about there being sexual tension between the siblings. I actually felt that they HAD consummated it when they were both young, thus leading to where we see them in this movie. I actually feel that the movie would have been more interesting if it had gone down that road again, not for the perversion factor, but because it would show truly damaged characters, not the somewhat two-dimensional sister and the (in my opinion) self-indulgent brother.

    I would like to thank you for not writing about how "brave" Fassbender was for all the nude scenes. I've seen a ton of people say that and it just makes me laugh. Fassbender wasn't brave. You know who was brave? The fat guy in Borat doing full frontal. Fassbender doesn't have an ounce of fat on him and even if he's a "show-er" and not a "grower", he's still got nothing to feel inadequate about.

    Anyway, I am happy that you've found a film that has truly moved you. Another reason to keep working your way through the list. (See, with Das Boot, In the Loop, and now Shame, not all post-1980 films suck. Now if I could just convince you to give The Lives of Others a chance.) :-)

    1. Brandon is a more challenging main character, and it's understandable how his many faults - including narcissism, most certainly - might put you off.

      I hadn't thought about Brandon and Sissy having consummated their relationship PRIOR to the events in Shame, but it's an interesting point and one that the narrative would easily support. Hrmmmm... you've given me much to think about.

      If anything, Fassbender's "brave" performance was to me how he turned himself inside out, emotionally. His penis had nothing to do with it. And it's really frustrating how a full frontal shot on a man usually means he's been DARING. I never thought of it before, but yeah, the actor from Borat had to summon up a lot more courage to show himself.

      The eighties made me a bit disenchanted, but I've gone through a string of awesome movies lately that has made me excited! And I'm not purposely putting off The Lives of Others, but my rate of new film consumption is pretty low. I WILL WATCH IT, I WILL!!!!!!!!!!

    2. I think it was only Das Boot and The Lives of Others, among the list films you had left, that I singled out as "must see"s - 5 star films. For the most recent, I gave both Hugo and The Artist 5 stars, but I think you've seen both of them. I know that I did include a bunch of 4 star films in that email, too, but I doubt I'll harass you about any of them. I did make one of them my next Club pick, though - Lone Star - which I reviewed recently. It should be coming up some time in September. Steve also reviewed it just a little before I did, so if you think of it you can check out both our reviews after you see it.

      (after checking your list) I guess you haven't seen Hugo yet, and I also gave 5 stars to Children of Men and City of God, but I think The Lives of Others might have the best chance to resonate. But if I'm wrong and you dislike it, I'm a big boy; I can take it.

      By the way, congrats on passing 900 entries seen.

    3. Thanks for the congrats! Slow and steady, man. I haven't seen Lone Star, and thanks for the heads up, I'll use my summer vacation time to see that and review it for the club. Movies I haven't seen that are picked by the club are a pretty big motivation for me to stop being lazy and watch something new.

      I am looking forward to watching Children of Men. I think I'll like it. As such, I'm actually trying to wait a little to see it, because as you know, there's a lot of stuff in 1001 Movies that isn't so hot. I might save Children of Men for a time when I feel I need a good film to shake me out of a string of less impressive ones.

  2. Carey Mulligan's performance of New York, New York is one of the most gutting 5 minutes of film from the last decade. There, I said it and I'll say it again.

    I agree with you on the location of Fassbender's bravery--it has nothing to do with full-frontal and everything to do with full-frontal emotion. That's a performance that required him to be not physically exposed, but emotionally exposed, and that takes a lot of guts.

    Now, regarding the modern films you've evidently been shying away from...

    I am a massive Guillermo del Toro fan, and I was really upset when some dumb German film won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar over Pan's Labyrinth. And then I watched The Lives of Others, and I'm not upset by that anymore. That film is staggering. You may not like or love it, but you'll find the same sort of respect for Ulrich Muhe you now have for Fassbender. Really--it's the same sort of emotionally open performance and it's can't-move-gotta-watch riveting.

    Children of Men is not only great, it manages to rise above all of the Clive Owen-y-ness it contains. It's science fiction at its most compelling and best.


    Lone Star is out of nowhere, almost compelling despite itself. I think you'll dig it.

    City of God...I have no words for how emotionally destructive and how incredibly wonderful that film is.

    1. Yah, the "New York New York" scene is brilliant. I did a bit of research on the film and her singing was live (no dubbing) and it was filmed in "real time." They put cameras on all three actors and filmed the shot at once, rather than going back to film just reactions, which means that Fassbender's reaction to Mulligan was happening "live." Plus Fassbender apparently didn't know Mulligan could sing, so that tear he sheds was NOT in the script but legitimate.

      I'm not shying away from anything. I'm just lazy when it comes to watching new films so it takes me awhile. It's the problem of having seen over 900 movies from the list but only having reviewed about 250 of them. Sure, there are 200 NEW movies left to see, but also 650 movies that I should watch again in order to write about them.

      As I mentioned to Chip, I'm really looking forward to Children of Men, and as such, holding off on it for when I've seen too many mediocre films in a row. Like you say, eat your vegetables! I have a feeling Children of Men will be like dessert. Therefore, I'm saving it.

      And now, apparently, I might also be saving The Lives of Others, because if you both recommend it that much, I might have to put it in the same category.

      Too many movies!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    2. "I might also be saving The Lives of Others, because you both recommend it that much"

      Is this the same thing as in a chick flick when the woman has to break up with the man because she loves him? :-)

  3. You make me really sorry I'm going to have to miss this one ... for now. It didn't sound up my alley and I've had to cut back because my father died last month and now I'm in charge of getting the family manse ready for sale in another town. But if you loved, chances are I will too. I had less pain about missing Fight Club, which I thought would be too violent for a wimp like me, and Flaming Creatures because well why bother.

    1. I'm really sorry about your father. That must be tough.

      I would wholeheartedly recommend this movie, but... wait until you can emotionally commit to it. It's quietly intense like no one's business, but if you're not ready for that, you'll miss out.

      (I actually picked Flaming Creatures for the club because we'd been reviewing too many GOOD movies. I thought we needed to get some crap in there too, otherwise we'd have done all the good ones first and saved all the junk ones for the end. And that's no fun.)

    2. Sorry, I didn't have time to write a scathing review about the movie you picked! I think you were right about throwing some turds among the gems.