by Tony Dayoub
Shame is not simply the sex addiction drama it is being marketed as. More precisely it is a character study focusing on Brandon (Michael Fassbender), a lonely disconnected New Yorker moderately succeeding at imposing a controlled routine over his life despite an unusual neurosis. If Freud and Fassbender's other NYFF character, Jung, were to psychoanalyze Brandon and his equally detached sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), they'd find that, though each acts out in different ways, both are obviously reacting to a childhood in which they were exposed to sexual dysfunction. But director Steve McQueen (Hunger) wisely avoids diving into the murky waters of cinematic pathology, preferring instead for his audience to connect the various clues to Brandon and Sissy's background themselves. McQueen is more concerned with how that pathology plays out in the lives of his characters, relying heavily on Fassbender's talent for conveying the defeated torment of the introverted Brandon through what is largely a performance based on subtle gestures and inflection that the director catches by simply allowing his camera to get uncomfortably close and stay there as long as needed.
Shame begins by showing us Brandon's perverse routine: he wakes up early, masturbates in the shower, goes to work for his boorish boss, David (James Badge Dale), sneaks off to masturbate in the restroom, goes home, opens his laptop to masturbate some more to porn on his laptop, calls up an escort service, has sex with a prostitute, goes to bed, and repeats the following day. Into this carefully regulated environment comes Brandon's sister, the disruptive Sissy, a nightclub singer. His discovery of her in his shower plays out in a most disquieting way, with Sissy apparently completely comfortable in her nudity in front of her brother. Brandon doesn't seem immediately discomfited either, until the shock wears off and he offers her a towel, as if catching himself becoming aroused by her. Soon, Brandon overhears Sissy crying to what is presumably a boyfriend over the phone, hoping he'll take her back. She throws Brandon's tidy apartment into complete disarray. Later, she goes to bed with Brandon's boss. Suddenly, Brandon's predictability and cleanliness stand in sharp contrast to the slovenly mess that is Sissy.
Like the best of Paul Schrader's work, the sexually explicit Shame is best appreciated as a study in social alienation. As Sissy tells Brandon late in the film, "We're not bad people. We just come from a bad place." And just as Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro were able to make the oddball loner, Travis Bickle, sympathetic in the Schrader-scripted Taxi Driver, McQueen and Fassbender (who see each other as a duo much like their legendary predecessors) are able to elicit empathy for their sad, pathetic protagonist. When Brandon reaches out for romance to a co-worker, Marianne (Nicole Beharie), one hopes she can help him overcome his proclivities just as much as one fears what her reaction will be if she finds out about them. When David reprimands Brandon after their company's IT department find porn downloads and their attendant viruses in his hard drive, one wishes this might turn into an intervention of sorts. But such is the disconnectedness of the society depicted in Shame (appropriately, this impressionistic New York feels like another character here) that no one tries to get through to Brandon, mostly because of society's entrenched respect for privacy and free will. David, a serial cheater, acts like he doesn't want to know how the contraband got inside Brandon's computer. And the separated Marianne, tentative to dip her own toe in the waters of single-hood, thinks the best response to Brandon's inability to consummate their relationship is to back off.
Only Sissy, in her foolish, misguided intrusiveness, stands the remotest chance of getting through to Brandon. But then what? As Shame begins to wrap up, McQueen demonstrates how the siblings are both self-destructive, each in their own way. And their road to recovering from the unspoken events of their childhood is a long and perhaps inconclusive one. A flare-up between Brandon and Sissy, performed beautifully by Fassbender and Mulligan in one extended take, leads to a predictable plot contrivance late in the film. And that misstep almost — almost, but not quite — threatens to derail the carefully constructed film. But it works better if seen as an epilogue to the film's should-have-been ending, a bravura piece of non-linear parallel cutting depicting Brandon's catharsis as he lets himself go all out in one final debauched spree. Propositioning (to put it mildly) one woman in front of her boyfriend, getting into an altercation over the incident, moving on to an underground gay bar for an anonymous rendezvous before finishing up with an orgy at a brothel, the final image of that sequence is the one McQueen should have ended on; it's a close-up of Brandon as he violently thrusts in and out of a woman, his face contorted in ecstasy as it slowly gives way to joy, then sadness, and finally... shame.
Shame is playing at the 49th New York Film Festival tonight, at 6:00 pm, and Sunday, October 9th at 12:00 pm, at the Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall, 1941 Broadway (at 65th Street), New York, NY 10023. For more ticket information go online here, or call (212) 721-6500
It opens in New York and Los Angeles December 2nd.