After two exceptionally grueling movies – Hunger and now Shame – it seems fair to wonder whether British director Steve McQueen isn’t trying to test the soul of actor Michael Fassbender.
In Hunger, McQueen cast Fassbender as Bobby Sands, the IRA rebel who in 1981 led a prison hunger strike that resulted in his death. The role, which seemed to blur the line between performance and ordeal, was nothing if not demanding.
In Shame, McQueen puts Fassbender through another wringer. Fassbender plays Brandon, a New York sex addict, whose behavior involves him in a soul-crushing ordeal.
OK, so McQueen isn’t really trying to destroy Fassbender, but he sure knows how to set an arduous physical and emotional pace -- and his actor responds in kind. Shame is a journey to the very bottom of Brandon’s parched soul, and Fassbender holds nothing in reserve.
Shame, which features nudity and explicit sex scenes, has been rated NC-17. But it’s not the nudity or the graphic sex (none of it erotic) that turns the movie into a brutalizing viewing experience; it’s the emotional violence to which Brandon subjects himself and others, as well as the maddening persistence of his compulsions.
This is a guy for whom the office men’s room is a place to masturbate, a man so seized by his sexual urges that he follows women off subway cars, hires hookers and can’t stop watching porn on the Internet.
Brandon is handsome, but also has a kind of ghastly pallor, as if he’s only half alive. When he’s not in the throes of his addiction, he works at keeping his distance from others. When Brandon’s sister (Carey Mulligan) tries to move in with him, his protected world faces a major disruption. Mulligan’s Sissy is a singer whose personal life is in disarray.
At one point, Brandon and his boss visit a nightclub to hear Mulligan’s Sissy sing. She does an agonizingly drawn out version of New York, New York that moves Brandon to tears. It’s not a place he likes to be.
Later, Brandon finds himself attracted to a woman in his office (Nicole Beharie). He takes her to dinner. He loosens up a bit. But when it comes to making love to this woman, he can’t perform. For Brandon, relationships are the enemy of desire. He prefers anonymous sex.
McQueen’s directing style involves holding shots for an exceptionally long time, sometimes photographing conversations from a distance, and using wide-screen spacing to create tension between characters.
Now, you can’t watch a movie such as Shame without taking a walk on the seamy side. If you’re interested in seeing an actor plumb the depths of a powerful addiction, Shame will take you on one of the year’s most disturbing rides.
Whether you emerge from the experience having learned something from Brandon’s torments is another matter. Shame is powerful, but not necessarily profound. It tends to be obvious when it comes to Brandon’s addictive personality and not especially interested in how he might have gotten that way.
Oh well. Shame shows the prolonged agony of being chained to a compulsion. Its unremitting intensity and startling frankness make it stand apart, even if those same qualities do not carry it to greatness.