Top Ten of 2011, #7: Shame, Steve McQueen

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.

9/10

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The Grey, Joe Carnahan (2012)

Easily Carnahan’s best film since his debut Narc, The Grey manages to integrate substance with the sharp style on display in the likes of Smokin’ Aces and The A-TeamThe A-Team was pure, unadulterated Hollywood fun, while Smokin’ Aces was both more and less, possessed of an idiosyncratic anarchism that left it beholden to nothing, but that also ultimately made it a purposeless exercise in stylishness.  Nevertheless, throughout his career, Carnahan has demonstrated a real skill at casting, as well as working with his actors.  And that’s a large part of the reason that The Grey works so well.  Still, I have a couple of friends who are animal lovers, the kind who have to know before a movie if an animal is going to appear to be hurt onscreen.  I’d definitely recommend those people stay away from The Grey, as too much of this film will make them angry, emotionally distressed, or both.

What’s doubly effective is the way The Grey‘s emotional themes play off of the real-life tragedy that befell Liam Neeson’s wife Natasha Richardson.  Here, Neeson’s character Ottway has lost a love of his own.  We don’t know the circumstances of it, at least not until the end of the film, but throughout we get some sense that he was abandoned by his love, or that he was incapable of being there for her and that she left him.  Either way, the character is full of grief and regret, longs to do something to save their relationship, but appears unable to successfully follow through.  So he’s allowed himself to be punished by the elements at the ends of the earth in retribution, working with oil rig teams in Alaska, shooting the wolves that occasionally attack them.  But it’s obvious that Ottway feels a kinship to the animals he kills, probably more so than with other humans, and hates himself for being their murderer.  He’s caught in a forever deepening cycle of self-hatred and despair, and suicide seems like it may be his only escape and solace.

I think it’s interesting that such a talented actor as Neeson, who’s been in so much Academy Award bait, has, since the death of his wife, appeared mainly in genre films.  I think it’s not unlikely that the best way for him to work through his personal tragedy is to give himself situations that play to it, that are visceral and allow him to face his own despair, grief, rage, loneliness, purposelessness, and godlessness.  And this is certainly a movie and a role that draw directly from those dark and pained waters.  Watching it, and watching the emotional and spiritually existential struggles of Ottway, it’s difficult not to feel for Neeson himself.  And so Carnahan has a movie with a lot more emotional depth and subtext that the likes of Smokin’ Aces or The A-Team.

A character without the will to live can be a fascinating one, particularly when thrown into a situation of pure physical survival.  As everyone probably knows from the trailers, Ottway boards a plane with several dozen of his oil rig compatriots, and it goes down.  Only a handful survive the plane crash.  And then it’s a struggle for survival against the elements.  And the wolves.  Whether it’s the removal of the luxury of spiritual ennui, or simply the visceral shock of immediate physical threat, Ottway finds himself fighting for his life.  Hell, perhaps he’s only fighting because he’s in a state of shock and instinct has momentarily taken over, until a time when he’ll remember that he doesn’t actually even want to live.  But for now, he’s the only one with both the survival skills and the emotional strength to be able to hold it together and lead the group, and he knows that he’s the other survivors’ only hope.

And as these movies go, the survivors always end up being an eclectic group of oddities and fuck-ups, with the more normal among them getting their chances to rise to heroics or descend to destructiveness.  Carnahan, as usual, has cast some fantastic actors in the roles.  Joe Anderson is a younger actor who has the charisma to be a huge Hollywood star.  You can see him as the lead in The River, a new series that premieres on ABC this week.  Here that leading man charisma is subverted and underplayed, not unlike Chris Pine’s role in Smokin’ Aces.  Dermot Mulroney has been one of the best supporting and often overlooked actors in Hollywood for years, and in The Grey he turns in a performance that ranks among his career highs, bringing a lot of heart and gravity to the core of the film.  But that’s true for all of the cast, particularly when working together in an ensemble obviously so collaborative and supportive of each other.  And Frank Grillo in particular, much less well-known than even Mulroney, has been a working actor for decades and certainly never had the kind of career visibility this part is giving him.  He really shines through in a pivotal role that counterpoints Ottway, and will undoubtedly get more high-profile work as a result.

I’ve seen reviews of the film from people who have critiqued some of the spiritual conversations and meanderings of the group.  But really, when you’re fighting the elements and death is all around you, aren’t you going to be questioning your own belief system?  Which isn’t to say that these are esoteric conversations; they’re much more along the lines of “I believe there’s a purpose for everything,” or “I wish I could believe in God, but I don’t.”  And ultimately, that’s what The Grey is really about: how prepared are you for your death?  And are you going to be able to face it head-on when the time comes?  It’s framed by the struggle of a man who wants to have a purpose to live, who desperately yearns for salvation and meaning, and is failing at it.  And it allies him with a group with a grab-bag of philosophies and spiritual beliefs, and it puts them in situations where they have to fight for their lives, and it lets us see how those belief systems change as they survive or die with them.

Carnahan does a fantastic job at capturing the harshness of the elements.  You get cold just watching the struggle for survival, for shelter, for warmth.  And not only does he excel at capturing the brutal, visceral, stark reality of the environment, but he also demonstrates a genuine sensitivity for those spiritually transcendent moments.  There’s a scene early on when Ottway has to talk a critically injured plane crash survivor through his death, through the realization and acceptance of it, and through the experience itself.  And Ottway’s resolve is tender, graceful, fully-aware, and completely unflinching.  He’s a man who has studied and accepted death fully, and as a result has the kind of deep relationship with it than can only be a strength when walking the razor’s edge where the panicked and unresolved can’t function and inevitably collapse.

If there’s a critique to be made of the movie, beyond that of the portrayal of the wolves, it has to do with the ending of the film.  It’s not really that the movie is vague, as has become far too common these days, particularly with younger directors.  A friend of mine compared this laziness at failing to finish the last act of a film with the building of a three-legged table.  Too often we’re seeing younger directors make open-ended films while telling themselves that their indecision is a strength of the narrative and a talking point for the film’s themes.  And while Carnahan’s last-minute fake-out isn’t so much a narrative cop-out, it does rob the audience of something that’s been promised from the beginning, even if, in a broader sense, the larger questions are answered quite thoroughly.  There’s a lot to be said for Ottway’s strengths and weaknesses as a survivor, and exactly how and where those things have led him, and in what ways he’s responsible for his own survival.  But there’s a certain aspect to the climax that Carnahan has been building towards, and whether or not he thinks he could have effectively filmed it without destroying the fabric of everything else he’s so successfully sewn together, he really owes it to the audience to try.  Considering that everything to that point was near-perfection, there’s nothing to suggest he couldn’t have pulled it off.

8/10

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