On the surface, Brandon has it all. He’s got a great job with colleagues he gets on with, a modern apartment in New York and a level of confidence and self-assurance that makes him a hit with the ladies. Plus, the dude looks like Michael Fassbender, which has to help a little bit. However, Brandon has a problem – several in fact. Firstly his work computer has just been taken away to repair a virus from all the porn he’s been downloading. Secondly, his messed up sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) is about to fall back into his life. And thirdly, Brandon seems completely incapable of maintaining a relationship with anyone who doesn’t charge by the hour.
When Shame was suggested by Alex from And So It Begins for the latest Movie of the Month over at the LAMB, I was delighted, and even more so when it won. It’s a film not only from the 1001 Movies List, but also one I’ve had on DVD for over a year now and not so much as cracked open the box to see if the disc was intact. Watching and reviewing this allowed me to kill four birds with one stone – cross a film off the List (always a priority for me), watch a film I’d heard a lot about and had been meaning to watch for a long time, take part in the reviewing section of the Movie of the Month, and catch up on an earlier film from the director of one of the best new films I’ve seen in recent months. I’ve also had Steve McQueen’s Hunger on DVD for a long time too, but that’s not on the 1001 List so is nowhere near as high a priority. The fact that this turned out to be an amazing film made the whole experience even more worthwhile.
It’s very much a character study – not exactly my preferred style of film-making – following Brandon through what may be one of the most pivotal weeks of his existence, as he is forced to come to terms with his sexual addiction and the toll it takes on both himself and those around him. This is a film with a great deal of sex in it – again, generally not something I’m overly fond of – but it is in no way erotic. Instead this shows sex as something more like a drug, something shameful and wrong, but with a release that is craved for and sought after.
Fassbender is phenomenal in a role many other actors would have turned down at page one, and not just because of the large amount of full frontal nudity, and a scene where Brandon urinates on cue (which he actually did. I find this more amazing that all the sex scenes combined). He is a complex, layered character whose motivations and intentions are often unclear, and Fassbender entirely commits to the performance. I’m slightly in shock that he wasn’t nominated for the Best Actor Oscar that year, when Brad Pitt was nominated for Moneyball (by no means a bad performance, but far inferior to Fassbender’s work here). Fortunately, Fassbender is well supported by two other great performances from Carey Mulligan as Brandon’s sister and James Badge Dale as his boss. Mulligan isn’t necessarily my favourite actress – although that’s probably more down to the films she’s chosen than anything else – but here she nails it as Brandon’s equally (or possibly even more so) screwed up sibling. The scenes shared by these two, particularly those in Brandon’s apartment, have an unpredictability to them that borders on fear for what these characters are going to do, and what may have already happened to them in the past to drive them to these creatures we see on the screen.
James Badge Dale is a character actor I’m rapidly becoming a big fan of, and I had no idea he was in this film, up until about 10 minutes after he was on screen, because the dude has this ability to always look different despite barely changing any aspect of his appearance. He doesn’t even try to steal the film from Fassbender – I’m not sure if that’s possible for any actor – but his cocky, over-confident bit-of-a-dick portrayal of Brandon’s boss David works so well. And even though his character does a few despicable things throughout the film, you never really hate him, possibly because it’s James Badge Dale, and how could you hate that guy?
The cinematography is simply beautiful, which is something I’m coming to expect from director Steve McQueen. I’m always a fan of long tracking shots, and there’s one here that simply follows Brandon going for a run at night through the streets of New York. It’s simple, relatively straightforward – there’s not even any cornering – but it looks beautiful nonetheless. Elsewhere, a scene in which Brandon and David watch Sissy singing in a bar went on a little too long for my liking – we hear every note of a protracted rendition of New York, New York – but it really worked for the film. After the song though, all I could think about was how much two Martinis and a glass of scotch must have cost at that place, followed up by a round of champagne! I can’t imagine they got change from $80.
I appreciated this film a great deal more than I expected too, and I’m now even more looking forward to whatever McQueen directs next. Don’t get me wrong, this was a long way from being an enjoyable watch – it’s very, very humourless, and delves into the depths of tragedy and depravity on multiple occasions – but it’s a must-watch for fans of cinema. You can hear more of my thoughts on the film in a few days time, when the Lambcast episode devoted to it will drop. I’ll come back and post a link to it then, and it’s well worth a listen as I was joined by the aforementioned Alex – possibly the film’s biggest fan – as well as Stevee Taylor, Kristen Lopez and Jess Manzo to talk about it. If you’ve been put off by the reputation the film has regarding the sex acts then I’d still go ahead and see the film regardless. The acts of sex are shown fairly graphically, but the acting peformances during them make them worthwhile, and it’s more about how sex affects the lives of the characters than anything else. Basically, watch the film.
Choose film 8/10