Sinister, evocative and hugely powerful, Shame is a film that draws you into a bleak and riveting existence.
Addiction is nothing new to cinema. It’s been done many times over from The Lost Weekend (1945) to Trainspotting (1996) and Requiem For A Dream(2000) to Leaving Las Vegas (1995). The desperate need for that next hit, the self-loathing of someone at war with themselves and the eventual fallout when it begins to affect those closest. Shame addresses all of these but in ways that defy you not to sympathise with its protagonist. It will challenge and reward in equal measure and allow you just a hint of pitch black humour delicately stitched into the fabric of the story.
Brandon (Fassbender) is a good looking, successful and suave businessman working in New York. A fleeting glance at him makes it clear he’s got it all. But beneath his icy exterior lies an unrelenting sex addict. Prostitutes, porn, one-night stands and anything he can get his hands on are never quite enough to quench his desperate need for gratification. One evening he returns home to find his sister Cissy (Mulligan) basking in his bath. Clearly the two have a fractious and affectionate relationship but her presence seems to throw Brandon into a spiral of anger and depression.
The last time director Steve McQueen and Michael Fassbender teamed up, they launched themselves into certain stardom with Hunger (2008) . This time out, if possible, they have gone one better. Shame has the same intricate character dissection of Hunger but lends enough underlying crackling tension, atmosphere and ambiguity to make it one of the most immersive and absorbing films of the year.
Brandon is enigmatic, he’s good at his job and, more than anything, effortlessly cool with the ladies. A veritable Casanova he, along with McQueen’s wandering lens, mentally undresses women with such predatory delight, mixed with menacing grace, to make you find yourself strangely drawn to him. ImaginePatrick Bateman from American Psycho (2000) minus the ego and eccentricity and you have something close to Brandon. He possesses the same sub-zero stare that belies a man in a constant state of turmoil. One minute he can be casually passing money to a hooker, the next, effortlessly telling a group of adoring girls the colours of their eyes, blindfolded and having known them for all of 30 seconds.
The introduction of Cissy though plagues Brandon. Suddenly his fragile younger sibling invades his insular existence. It is through her introduction that we see Brandon’s emotion, love and hints of something lurking in the darkest recesses of his psyche. In a hugely powerful scene Brandon takes his boss to see Cissy sing in a bar. Her haunting rendition of New York, New York gradually breaking Brandon’s heart like a well-devised torture device. It becomes clear that the sex is a mask for something, a sense of hopeful satisfaction when his life is clearly rife with endless frustrations.
McQueen never allows the mood to dwindle. Shooting the sex in a dream-like euphoria, an act of warmth in an otherwise sterile world. This is not about the dangers of promiscuity but the escapism of it. The real treats come in the form of the tentatively littered humour. McQueen not afraid to cut to a wry smile on Brandon’s face as his desperate boss tries to chat-up a girl in a bar, all the while her and Brandon’s eyes locked in an act unmistakably sexual. McQueen laces the film with an evocative score that sears the visuals further into the memory bank.
The film becomes exquisite thanks to the performances of its leads. Mulligan has proven to be a constant angelic presence on screen. Here, she lends another arrow to her quiver by going dark. Cissy may be all laughs and smiles on the outside but behind the facade lies damaged goods. Mulligan finds a level of both passion and anger to rival that of Brandon’s. Furthermore, her dulcet singing voice is nothing if not a revelation. However, it is Fassbender again who proves to be one of the most magnetic (pun very much intended) actors working today. As Brandon he produces easily the most absorbing performance of the year. A controlling ball of pent-up anger he has the ability to command a level of sympathy that a character of his nature should not warrant. It’s something in those broken blue eyes.
The testament of a good film is how long it lives in the memory after you have left the cinema. Shame doesn’t so much linger as stamp, bang and scream its way into your consciousness. There is a point when Cissy turns to Brandon and tells him he’s not a bad person he’s “just from a bad place.” If cinema can be this good then pray it all comes from this bad place and is overloaded with McQueen et al’s level of bashful, humiliating Shame.