Shame, directed by Steve McQueen, rated NC-17, and ostensibly interested in sex addiction, isn't really a movie for the raincoat-wearing art-porno crowd. It's tough to see how the jump-cut-heavy sex and tragic masturbation on display here could turn anyone on. Instead, McQueen uses sex as an extended metaphor for one man's profound emotional alienation. Drugs or gambling would have performed the same thematic purpose, but neither of those things would have gotten everyone all hot and bothered.
Shame spends its wordless opening minutes following mid-level corporate everyman Brandon (Michael Fassbender) on his daily routine. Brandon is the definition of the strong, silent type; while on his morning subway ride, it becomes clear that he's the type of ladies' man whose gaze conveys a predatory need powerful enough to sway more level-headed women. He's not always successful, but that's no matter; if he can't sway them, there are plenty of prostitutes in the city. And plenty of porn on his computer.
Michael Fassbender has earned praise for his performance as Brandon, and although he often lurks at the extreme right- or left-hand side of the frame, he's a solid center for the story, and once he starts talking, he's got some excellent vocal tricks up his sleeve. But the better performer here is Carey Mulligan, who was so smart and lovable in 2009's An Education. Mulligan plays Sissy, Brandon's sister, who is as intensely emotional as Brandon is repressed.
Mulligan and Fassbender's first scene together is the best one in the film. It begins when Brandon arrives home to hear Chic's "I Want Your Love" blaring in his bachelor pad. He picks up a baseball bat and barges into his bathroom, where Sissy has been taking a shower. We'll find out soon enough that both Brandon and Sissy are deeply damaged people, but the queasily incestuous overtones conveyed through this scene fill in plenty of holes.
Like a few other significant scenes in the film, Brandon and Sissy's reunion unfolds during a single long take. McQueen's refreshing taste for uninterrupted action emphasizes the realism of the anonymous urban setting while increasing the discomfort his characters feel when they try to communicate with each other. There are some other unusual stylistic choices here, from filming a key confrontation between Sissy and Brandon in profile (good) to lighting a gay sex club like it's the antechamber of hell (bad) to pouring classical music over scenes of sexual pursuit and fulfillment (awful).
Opening Friday, January 20th