Grim, provocative and starkly confrontational, Shame is another serious piece of heavyweight filmmaking from Steve McQueen. To follow his debut feature, Hunger, with a movie as relenting and brutal – albeit in a very different guise – is quite a feat. It will not be for everyone but it cannot fail to be noticed. This is heightened brute art minimalism.
If you wanted to be trite, summarising Shame could go a lot like this; incest, porn addiction, sex addiction / dysfunction, isolation, workplace porn, predatory behaviour, Michael Fassbender’s arse (and more besides) joyless desire and a decided lack of redemption. You’d be wrong of course, but you’d also be very much on the mark. This unseemly combination of behaviours combine to make a highly watchable, though perhaps not fully enjoyable, piece of art.
And this is art as film, rather than vice versa. Steve McQueen’s sensibility after two features is already is highly identifiable. The sparse, clean visual style – established so vividly in Hunger – is maintained. Stark imagery and a rich shooting style inform every frame. Harry Escott’s evocative swelling orchestral movements frame the film’s opening and closing scenes. If it were a product it would be slick, boutique and very high end.
Brandon (Michael Fassbender) works at an unspecified firm – perhaps advertising or financial. His habit is hidden from view, despite barely being able to get through a working day without relieving himself. Unexpectedly Brandon’s sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) re-enters his life. She is damaged goods. Again this is inferred. There is very little in the way of contextualisation. The story exists in a bubble – back-story non-existent. Brandon’s addiction facilitates his removal from the world. Sissy’s presence disrupts his balance, forcing him to curb his impulses and confront his behaviour.
Shame works on many levels. There are excellent performances. Michael Fassbender as Brandon is at once sympathetic, insular, extroverted, and utterly condemnable. And not in the moralist fashion you might imagine. At a simple dinner-date with a colleague he is rude to the point of non-communication. Preferring to shut anyone out than let them enter his world. As the film progresses Brandon’s alienation only increases. Carey Mulligan as the sister who enters his life, disrupting his pattern, is bruised, vulnerable and manipulative. Equal parts likeable and not. It’s an uncomfortably real performance. She will be a serious contender in awards season. James Badge Dale (best known from The Pacific) as Brandon’s boss is also brilliant in a small supporting role.
It’s a movie of superb set-pieces, the opening and closing shots on the subway, Carey Mulligan singing “New York New York” in a one-shot centrepiece and Fassbender’s late night run through the city streets – again filmed in one uninterrupted shot. New York is portrayed as a cold, clinical environment.
This coldness seeps through the setting and the film is hard to love. McQueen’s two films to date work at an intellectual level but have been hard to empathise with despite their brutal emotional exploration. The clinical, utterly consumed Brandon, is a kind of desperate anti-hero in the Travis Bickle vein (minus the violence), but updated thirty years with his own prism of New York to match. Full of moral greys, with the fantasies and emotional bankruptcy to match, ultimately Shame is doggedly direct and utterly compelling.