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MOVIE REVIEW: Shame

Starring Carey Mulligan, Michael Fassbender and James Badge Dale

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The New York City of Shame is mostly anonymous and cold. Familiar monuments and landscapes are noticeably absent, replaced by clean architectural lines, smooth surfaces, and lifeless interiors. The lost souls wading around this urban tidal pool are clean-cut suits by day and wandering hedonists by night, and Shame examines one particularly deviant case-study. The first time we see Brandon (Michael Fassbender), a handsome corporate lackey who happens to be addicted to sex, his chiseled body is draped in satin sheets and coiled like a snake waiting to strike. When Brandon rises and dresses for work, it’s immediately clear the man is a silent sufferer from his sterile apartment and lifeless demeanour, a low-rent Patrick Bateman simply lacking the imaginative sadism.

Director Steve McQueen, a British visual artist whose debut film Hunger brilliantly details the 1981 Irish hunger strike involving Bobby Sands with horrific physical accuracy, stalks Brandon’s every move as he glides through rain-drenched streets in fluid long takes. The graceful movement of the camera and constant presence of soft luminescence makes for a beguiling visual framework. Brandon’s public work and personal play are almost interchangeable, whether it’s partaking in rowdy office meetings with his brute of a boss or drinking together at any number of NYC’s slickest bars. Yet Brandon’s silence comes in direct contrast to the elevated volume of his peers, making him an attractive and mysterious option for a myriad of beautiful women.

By draining all the life out of Brandon’s emotional and physical world, McQueen and Fassbender attempt to transcend the traditional “downfall of an addict” narrative. Shame certainly values restraint in it’s first half as Brandon starts to resent his actions one tryst at a time, even throwing out all of his porn in an attempt to go cold turkey. But McQueen’s treatment of the dark subject matter remains cliche-ridden despite his art-film approach, even laughably so in the film’s melodramatic final act. Brandon’s ridiculous descent into psychological limbo is especially troubling when he visits an underground gay club, a sort of hell on earth that uses the darkness of one sexual orientation to trivialize and demonize the experience of another.

Still, there’s plenty to admire about Shame, especially it’s stunning use of silence to dissect conversational awkwardness. A tenuous emotional moment Brandon shares with his emotionally unbalanced sister Sissy (Care Mulligan) on a couch is a perfect example of this trend, a breaking point of epic proportions that hints at a more personal vision Shame never bothers to address anywhere else. The rest of the film merely suggests that Brandon’s vice-ridden forays (public sex, prostitution) are damning not because they hide a monster underneath, but because they lack any real passion. Bookended passages involving Brandon and a sexy redhead on the subway only further prove how much Shame values clinical meticulousness and symmetry over raw insight.

Shame opens in limited release at the Landmark Hillcrest Cinemas on Friday, December 9