Steve McQueen’s “Shame” – rated NC-17 for “explicit sexual content” – gives a powerful and thought provoking insight into the life of a sex addict named Brandon, played by Michael Fassbender.
In a world where sexual addiction is often portrayed as something comical or exaggerated, “Shame” is a breath of realism. The addiction is not glamorized or laughed at, but instead presented as any other addiction would be, as something that controls a person to the point until they can no longer function normally. When Brandon’s highly sexualized lifestyle is interrupted by an unexpected visit from his equally unstable sister “Sissy” (Carey Mulligan), his secrets begin to come out and he finds himself unable to live his life without constantly feeding the addiction.
With a haunting score and unique cinematography, the audience is quickly plunged into Brandon’s dysfunctional world. His daily routines – showering, eating and working – would usually be normal for any human; however, every step in his day is somehow sexualized. Consequently, it very quickly becomes clear that without sex, Brandon would not be able to get through his day.
As a character, Brandon is perhaps the most disturbing element of the movie. The film presents this man that many see as friendly and intelligent, but internally struggles with a dark secret. The most frightening thing about Brandon is that his character is so universal and could be anyone. Though his addiction still steers his life and controls the choices he makes, he does not wear some of the outward signs of having a problem that a drug addict might display.
It is only with the insight into Brandon’s private life that one has the rare glimpse to see the extent of his struggles. While some people might be turned off by “Shame” due to the copious amounts of graphic sexual content in the film, it was not used with the unnecessary “sex sells” attitude, but rather to help the audience get into Brandon’s head. The persistent images throughout the film remind the viewer of the kind of power Brandon’s need for sexual release has over him. Although many people may have difficulty understanding a person like Brandon’s situation, “Shame” helps to provide an alternate point of view that may assist with this.
McQueen uses long camera shots of single images, holding viewers in the moment until it feels as if they are a part of the scene themselves. If used incorrectly, this technique could make the movie feel slow, but in McQueen’s case it makes everything more personal. This also allows the audience to become aware of the details in the film.
The film features incredible performances by both Fassbender and Mulligan. Fassbender took on an incredibly challenging role and was forced to use minimal emotions while portraying the pain that Brandon felt. Watching him jump back and forth from lust to anger, always struggling with persistent shame, was incredibly disturbing. Though Brandon might not be a likable character, he is someone who, by the end of the film, the audience grows to understand better and feel empathy for.
Mulligan’s character is, in many ways, equally as pathetic and exhausting to watch. While Brandon cannot attach himself to anyone emotionally, Sissy is desperate for some sort of affection. In one scene she sings an extremely melancholy version of “New York, New York,” successfully helping to portray her sheer loneliness and despair.
“Shame” is powerful, devastating and, above all, very human. The film tells stories of addiction and struggles between siblings, but more than anything reminds the audience of the pain that comes with juggling between such extreme emotions. While the content may be too heavy for some people to handle, it is executed in such a way that it forces the audience to think and is definitely worth watching.
The film can be viewed at the Pleasant Street Theatre in Northampton.
Anna Meehan can be reached at [email protected]