In 2008, media-artist-turned-filmmaker Steve McQueen teamed with unknown-actor-now-ubiquitous-star Michael Fassbender to create Hunger, one of the most powerful and moving films of the decade. The film, which included a 17-minute uninterrupted shot and a drastic loss of weight for its star, made McQueen the most talked about new voices of that year and was the stepping stone for Fassbender’s almost overnight rise to fame.
In Shame, the two men have come together again to examine the nature of sex addiction which is, along with mental illness, one of the few remaining taboo topics in American society. Brandon (Fassbender) is a seemingly successful New Yorker whose insatiable lust for flesh is slowing severing the tenuous grasp he has on day-to-day functioning. Brandon doesn’t simply get aroused like most people; his need for sexual gratification (to put it lightly) results in near physical pain if not sated.
When his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), arrives on his doorstep unexpectedly, Brandon is more perturbed than most grown men would be by having a slightly annoying little sister around. After sleeping with his boss and exposing his highly active Internet search history, Sissy’s presence becomes too much for Brandon to take. His world begins crumbling around him and no amount of meaningless sex is enough to bring it back into balance.
Fassbender’s performance is by far one of the most brilliant ever captured in cinema. He completely sheds any sense of himself in order to portray a man who doesn’t see that he is the only thing causing himself pain. There are several scenes in the film which are admittedly uncomfortable to watch, but this is a testament to Fassbender’s honest performance and representation of what it really means to hit rock bottom.
Mulligan is also stunning to watch as an emotionally damaged and desperate girl who is coldly refused by the one man to whom she turns for comfort. One of the most talented young actresses working today, Mulligan develops a character for whom you will feel pity and love.
Much has been made of the NC-17 rating which was assigned to Shame by the Motion Picture Association of America. McQueen refused to re-edit the film to secure an R rating which would undoubtedly mean a bigger box office return and the chance to reach a wider audience. This was without question the right decision as the depiction of Brandon’s world and the methods he uses to “cope” with his addiction is not something which should be subtle or censored. Sex addiction, like alcoholism or drug abuse, can ruin lives and McQueen presents the affliction with the same honest reflection as we have seen in Leaving Las Vegas and Requiem for a Dream.
As he did in Hunger, McQueen tells his story (co-written with Abi Morgan) through a series of images which are memorable for their perfect composition and visceral impression. Shame, like Hunger, is also a very quiet film where dialogue is almost meaningless. The actors are so deeply committed to their characters that unnecessary verbal exchanges would detract from the film’s ultimate impact. As a director, McQueen trusts his performers and his audience enough to allow a lingering look or piercing glare to say more than words ever could.
One of the best films of 2011, Shame is unflinching in its authenticity and brutal realism. There is no question that McQueen is among the most unique and refreshing filmmakers working today.
This film is rated NC-17 and runs 101 minutes.