Sex addiction isn't exactly the stuff of Hollywood dreams. Experts claim that more than 20 million Americans suffer from it, but that doesn't mean anyone's hoping to see the topic explored at the local multiplex. Then there's the problem of depicting it credibly on film. None of that stopped artist-turned-filmmaker Steve McQueen from mounting the relentless and remarkably explicit Shame. The NC-17 rating may keep the faint of heart at a safe distance, but even jaded viewers may find themselves unprepared for the film's raw nerves. Anyone seeking cheap thrills would be wise to look somewhere else. Shame is a brutally honest character study with a whole lot of troubles on its dark and worried mind.
Actor-of-the-moment Michael Fassbender (who was introduced to the world via McQueen's previous narrative film, 2008's Hunger) stars as Brandon, a successful New Yorker whose constant barrage of sexual conquests masks his inability to connect with anyone in a meaningful way. Brandon's world starts to unravel when his sister Cissy (Carey Mulligan) arrives at his apartment for an unexpected stay. Open and vulnerable, Cissy is Brandon's equally damaged opposite. Fassbender has already won more than a dozen best actor awards for his work in Shame, but Mulligan's presence is just as strong as she brings crucial heart and soul to the film.
Until recently, writer-director McQueen only made the kind of short films that are projected onto walls at major museums as fine art. In 1999, he won the Turner Prize, which each year honors an innovative British artist under 50. That talent and sense of purpose are on display in Shame. Key scenes consist mostly of a single long, unbroken shot using a static camera and no edits. While some directors use this technique to showcase elaborately choreographed set pieces, McQueen intends to give his film the rhythm and pace of real life, and it works. Shame just doesn't let up. It may be an art film, but it never feels arty.
Londoner McQueen had spent little time in New York before deciding to set Shame there, and he captures something of the city's current essence through the fresh eye of an outsider. With its high-rise fishbowl apartments, curtain-free and seemingly built for voyeurs and exhibitionists, modern-day New York provides the ideal setting for the story. Its immediacy, and its constant focus on the here and now, fit Brandon and Cissy like a glove. We never find out what early trauma caused their broken states, but that's part of the point. They struggle mightily to keep the past at bay where it can cause no further harm.
Both McQueen and Fassbender have acknowledged the potential for long-term director-actor collaboration in the manner of Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro, and the parallels, so far, are striking. That pair's second film together was Taxi Driver, another unflinching tale of an obsessed man engulfed by New York City. Time will tell, of course, whether McQueen and Fassbender are destined for anything approaching that sort of greatness. But Shame is just good enough to make you wonder if they are. — Ken Korman
Directed by Steve McQueen
Starring Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan