Steve McQueen’s follow-up to his debut Hunger, like Nichols’ Take Shelter, is another re-teaming of an actor/director pair that really should have resulted in an Oscar nomination this past year. Michael Fassbender turns in a very emotionally raw & naked performance of a sexual compulsive and sex addict living in New York City.
This is the kind of material that could easily slide into exploitation, but McQueen handles everything with such a deft touch, and Fassbender implicitly trusts his director and allows himself to be very vulnerable and emotionally transparent throughout. We seem to be in an era where American stars are so busy courting huge Hollywood success, and where Hollywood is transfixed with trying to make these boyish man-children into leading men. Consequently, time and time again the actors who demonstrate a true masculinity and maturity, as well as both an honesty and complexity in their work are coming from Ireland, Britain, and Australia. Fassbender gave a great performance in this summer’s X-Men: First Class, a big Hollywood film so well-executed that it does pain me a bit that I’m not able to include it in this list. But here he’s plumbing even darker depths.
Shame didn’t receive a very wide release because of its inability to escape the dreaded NC-17. And Shame certainly has its share of nudity, including some dangling man parts. But a lot of this is front-loaded. The film opens, shows you exactly the things that some audiences may be nervous about seeing, sets the tone, and then moves on. Once that world has been established, once that level of sexuality is omni-present, McQueen knows he doesn’t need to visually dwell there. Fassbender’s Brandon Sullivan is such a sexual compulsive, that he can barely go minutes without pursuing some kind of sexual release. Women he picks up on the street, co-workers, magazines, internet porn, prostitutes– life for Brandon is a non-stop sexual buffet, and there’s nothing he won’t put on his plate. At one point he even has sex with a man in a sex shop. But there’s never really any question if Brandon is gay. It’s simply part of his unending quest for physical release, and a constant need to raise the stakes by pushing his own boundaries farther and farther.
Somehow, Brandon is just barely able to hold down a job. Part of that probably has to do with the fact that his boss, David Fisher, played by James Badge Dale, has a mess of a home life and sort of hero-worships Brandon. David is the kind of frat boy who one day grew up and got married and had kids, but doesn’t seem to genuinely emotionally connect with his family. He’s living an illusion and playing an artificial role of family man, but he’s not above secretly having affairs on the side, or having sex with Brandon’s own sister when she comes to town. And David is not smooth, not in the least. Despite the fact that he’s obviously had sexual relations with women, even married one of them, he constantly acts like an idiotic teenager trying to get laid. As annoying as the character is, including him is a smart move on McQueen’s part because it invites a lot of comparisons with Brandon. Next to David, Brandon is a very smooth operator. He’s also much more intelligent. And for all of his compulsiveness, he’s very self-aware. This isn’t a teenager’s game to Brandon; it’s something that drives him and haunts him, and his shame throughout is palpable and complex.
The arrival of Brandon’s sister Sissy, played by Carey Mulligan in a performance that equals Fassbender’s, traps Brandon by shining a light on just how far gone he is. Brandon avoids talking to her as much as possible, but when she literally shows up on his doorstep, there’s nowhere left to run. It’s quite obvious that both of these characters have suffered some pretty terrible abuse, but McQueen never reveals the full details. We don’t know if they were molested by their parents, if they were forced to participate in incest with each other, or if the abuse was less overt but just as psychologically damaging. Either way, sister and brother are both extremely hyper-sexual characters, deeply scarred and in great pain with an intense need for love. Yet, this need for love has been subverted into the sexual. And they both pursue it in their own ways, but neither in a way that is healthy or could actually lead them to fulfillment.
Brandon in particular seems more sexually aroused the more he doesn’t know the people he’s with. Once an emotional connection is made, as is the case when he tries to date a co-worker, his sexual equipment stops working. It’s a case of that emotional connection representing too great an emotional risk, triggering a system shutdown. Consequently, Brandon is forever pursuing love and meaning through empty sexual relations that can never amount to anything. And the empty void of his existence just keeps deepening, widened by shame, and increasing the fevered pitch of his sexual mania.
Brandon tries his best to hide from himself and to keep pushing away a problem that seems to have no solution. In spite of how debased a character he is, he’s also intelligent, self-aware, and not without a sense of humor. A dinner date with a co-worker is intensely uncomfortable, but a fascinating look into his psyche. He tries to be open and honest about his beliefs, while at the same time also knowing how unattractive it makes him. When the conversation takes a certain turn and he realizes how far gone he must appear, he tries to bring it back with self-effacing humor. But at a core level, Brandon is simply broken; he lacks trust on such a basic level, that he’s unable to give love to another person without the vulnerability destroying him, and he’s unable to receive it. His existence has become a non-stop feeding of sexual addiction, but by leading an isolated, solitary existence with no real friends and no family, he’s able to shut down a large part of himself and exist only for the addiction itself. When Sissy lands in his apartment on his couch, all of that changes. Not only does he have to deal with repressed feelings that obviously make him uncomfortable, but he has to be more honest with himself about the extent of his mania and the way his life only exists to feed it.
Shame is an incredibly brave film with two incredibly brave and honest central performances. And while it’s sexually graphic at times, it plays those cards pointedly for their full effect when it needs to, so that most of the film can be spent examining an overtly sexual world through tone and characterization. It also doesn’t attempt to provide easy answers or to solve its characters lives with lazy melodrama, but recognizes that real change is a process. Sometimes that process requires a life-changing event for it to be initiated, but continuing to carry through with it is a constant daily struggle, and some days are more successful than others. While that makes Shame a very honest film in its approach, it also makes it slightly unfulfilling. It’s bravura filmmaking to be sure, but it’s bravura filmmaking with an ultimately somewhat modest aim.