Monday, January 2, 2012







Run Time: 101 min.


Mesmerizing but disturbing.

[Disclosure: This is rated NC-17 and rightfully so.  While there is graphic nudity and sex depicted, the subject matter itself is certainly not appropriate for minors.  This is one NC-17 film with sex scenes that are anything but sexy or gratuitous.]

Brandon Sullivan is a handsome, well-coiffed, immaculately dressed thirty-something who is apparently very successful at work.  He lives in a modern but somewhat sterile apartment in New York City.  He is confident, well-spoken and can be quite charming.  However there is another side to his persona that is concealed from all that know him.  He has an addiction that leads to constant urges and impulses focused on sex.  He spends every living moment he can engaged in some form of sexual activity: porn, escorts, masturbation, group sex, bar pickups and more.  British artist Steve McQueen portrays a fascinating character study of a sex addict whose obsession can only lead to self destruction.  

Brandon's aimless but organized lifestyle is disrupted by the sudden presence of his sibling, Sissy, another damaged soul who shares a painful past with Brandon.  There is a hint of something that happened to the two siblings a long time ago and each has chosen a different way of coping with this.  This history that the two have is left to the viewer's imagination based on what one chooses to read in their interactions.  Brandon has chosen to be reserved and insular divulging no emotion to the outside world.  Sissy, on the other hand, throws herself to every man she encounters with an unrestrained hunger.  She wears her emotions on her sleeve and her scars underneath.  They are like oil and water.

The film focuses solely on Brandon and we view Sissy and a few other characters from his point of view.  While he shuts himself to the rest of the world, he cannot prevent Sissy from encroaching his space.  McQueen subtly illustrates how no one can illicit any emotion out of Brandon.  In fact, Sissy is the only one who can provoke any emotion out of him and that is only anger.  She constantly angers him because she represents a past and a reality that he is trying to ignore.  We meet Brandon as he goes through his routine and then see the complications brought by Sissy's appearance.  We accompany him with his boss to a bar as a wing-man and see his boss flop shamelessly.  Brandon, as we see later, cannot afford to fall flat.  His need to hook up is far beyond a hobby or a conquest, it is a true need.

The film succeeds primarily because of three major contributors.  Michael Fassbender is simply brilliant as Brandon and does a remarkable job of expressing volumes with hardly any dialog.  He portrays the different aspects of Brandon's persona with amazing clarity: the confidence, the pain and the guilt.  Carey Mulligan, as Sissy, is compelling, building on her earlier roles, especially An Education.  She is successful in revealing the insecurity and lack of self-esteem that Sissy is burdened with.  There is one scene in particular where she shines but I will get to that in a minute.  The third contribution, as significant as it is subtle, is New York City the way it is captured by Steve McQueen.  As a visual artist of critical acclaim, he has put a stamp on his creation by making New York a key player in the context of his narrative.  A vibrant, bustling metropolis can serve equally well in depicting the loneliness of its inhabitants.  He directs his camera to capture the city in an engaging yet distant manner.  The background score by Harry Escott complements the camerawork beautifully.

A good film usually separates itself from the rest with one or two memorable scenes.  Shame has at least three scenes that elevate it from a good film to a masterful one.  The first is an early scene on the subway train as Brandon commutes to work and notices a beautiful passenger sitting across.  There is no dialog but so much is spoken and exchanged simply through the eyes of the two strangers.  It is a scene that is powerful and flirtatious all at once.  The second scene is one of the many sex scenes and it focuses on Brandon's face as he has an orgasm.  It is a face contorted with pain, anger and sadness; a complete contradiction to the popular perception of climactic pleasure.  It is as if he is enduring this congress to seek the release that he craves.  McQueen avoids lengthy discourses in favor of a scene like this to make his point that this addiction is ultimately nothing other than self-abuse.  The third scene is one where Brandon finally caves in and goes with his boss to see Sissy at work as she sings at a lounge bar.  Sissy's rendition of "New York, New York" is lovely but more powerful is her emotion in the context of the narrative as she tries to connect with Brandon.  The camera focuses on her face for most of the song. (It took about 15 takes as McQueen wanted a complete unbroken shot with the entire song.)  This scene is easily worth the price of admission.

McQueen has done a terrific job of giving credence and authenticity to an addiction/disorder that has for the large part been the butt of jokes for late night television.  Brandon is cold, insular and completely possessed by his compulsions.  He is either incapable of making social contact or avoids it a as result of his past.  At one point, he admits that his longest relationship lasted four months.  The moment he feels any intimacy with a partner, his defenses seem to kick in and he runs away from it.  It is a sad painful existence badly in need of a cathartic release.  This is a terrific and fascinating film to watch, just not an easy one.

Trivia: Though the entire movie is set and filmed in New York, both the leads, the writer and the director are London-based Europeans.  Both the leads play American characters quite convincingly.