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Nothing Shameful in 'Shame'

Carey Mulligan in Shame (2011)

Everyone involved in Shame, including the deservedly-praised Michael Fassbender, should be quite proud of their distressing product.


Director: Steve McQueen
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan
Length: 101 minutes
Studio: Film4, See-Saw Films, UK Film Council, Momentum Pictures, Lipsync Productions, HanWay Films
Year: 2011
Distributor: Fox
MPAA Rating: NC-17 for some explicit sexual content
Release date: 2012-04-17

Shame, a dark, difficult drama from dark, difficult director Steve McQueen, received the bulk of its attention for two distinctions. The first is its much-publicized NC-17 rating, thanks to a few medium close-ups of Michael Fassbender’s now famous Fassbender. Though the rating usually turns its labelee into a box office pariah, almost all of the movie’s marketing seemed aimed at reminding viewers of the film’s risqué nature and revealing shots.

It didn’t pay off. Despite Fassbender’s much hyped, er, performance, Shame earned less than $4 million in the US and failed to net its leading man an Oscar nomination. Whether the campaign was designed for the rating or in spite of it, the NC-17 curse struck again. This, though, was not a Bully-esque situation -- McQueen had to know his movie would get slapped with the MPAA’s harshest rating. After all, it earned it.

But Shame also deserved its second most publicized earmark – praise for Fassbender’s brave performance, a word used again and again to exalt the actor’s full-frontal depiction of a sex addict tortured by what many don’t even consider a real affliction. His courage is undeniable – anyone willing to depict themselves fully naked, both physically and emotionally, is a braver man than most. Heck, the majority of the population won’t even speak in public, let alone drop trou. Yet Fassbender is also charged with bringing out the humanity in someone driven to disgusting acts, and he does so with commanding subtlty.

McQueen’s efforts shouldn’t be slighted from his own picture. He’s not only provided two career-making opportunities for Fassbender, but crafted at least one unflinching, riveting account of a man’s downfall through striking visuals and deft framing (I have yet to see the duo’s first collaboration, 2008’s Hunger). He’s also created the most convincing argument for sex addiction’s validity I’ve yet to encounter. It’s a credit to McQueen that you’re not left thinking about the sex scenes or the nudity or the Fassbender after the credits roll. People joke about that because it’s easier than confronting the devastation portrayed in the story. That, though, is what will haunt your post-viewing thoughts.

For those who never read past “Fassbender gets naked” in the earlier reviews, Shame tells the story of Brandon Sullivan (Fassbender) and, to a lesser extinct, his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan). Brandon is a successful businessman in New York City. He lives alone. He makes plenty of money. Everything in his world is meticulously planned. Of course, it kind of has to be – Brandon craves sexual contact almost every waking moment of his life. He surfs internet porn constantly. He uses the restroom at work to relieve his tensions. He’ll even pick up an expensive call girl if he feels the need (which is often).

Yes, Brandon still goes on dates, but only for the same reason. That reason, that urge, that absolute need is put at risk when Sissy decides to stay with him. If you thought Brandon’s life before having a roommate seemed hectic, just wait 'til you see him try to adjust his packed schedule to accomodate an unknowing guest who’s got a stack of issues herself.

This is the basic premise of McQueen’s unrelenting study. It’s sex all the time, but it’s not sexy. It’s too carnal, too stressful, and too displeasing to be enjoyable for Brandon, let alone the audience. Yet McQueen brings out our compassion for Brandon’s situation, partly through Fassbender’s meticulously telling expressions.

Mulligan certainly does her part in creating an appeal for the unappealing duo. So far in her fresh career, Mulligan has played complacent girls forced into action. Here, she’s all action. Sissy is a loud, brash individual who’s not nearly as organized as her big brother. As both Mulligan and Fassbender point out in the disc’s extras, Sissy is the explosion to Brandon’s implosion. The foil couldn’t be more fitting. Mulligan’s performance is just as brave as Fassbender’s (for both reasons) – Hollywood take note.

Sadly, the extras aren’t much more than Mulligan, Fassbender, and McQueen talking. In four three-minute segments and one five-minute featurette, the trio provide their general thoughts on the characters and film they depict. A lot of their thoughts overlap, and the same scenes from the movie are shown again and again (not that there’s a lot of PG-content to choose from). This is a film that really could have benefitted from a director/star commentary track, especially when the two show signs of a fun friendship in their own three-minute clip.

Still, the movie itself has no interest in being fun so it’s almost fitting its extras are all business. Don’t get me wrong -- Shame is a captivating film worthy of all the praise it received and more. It’s just not something I would want to watch again, lest I feel ashamed.


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