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Awesome: 14.29%
Worth A Look76.19%
Average: 4.76%
Pretty Bad: 4.76%
Total Crap: 0%

2 reviews, 9 user ratings

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Shame (2011)
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by Brett Gallman

"Michael Fassbender has a lot of meaningless sex in a meaningful movie."
4 stars

The word I keep coming back to in order to describe Steve McQueen’s latest film is “cold.” Everything about it is icy, as if we were never meant to be closer than an arm’s length. This perhaps mirrors the way the film’s protagonist, Brandon (Michael Fassbender) approaches the world. As a sex addict, his life is dominated by a routine that we see unfold in automated fashion a few times: he emerges from the bed, still soaked in sweat from his latest conquest, ambles through his hallway, and checks his phone messages. Each time, a girl on the other end implores him to pick up the phone. Maybe we’re meant to assume this is one of those girls he’s discarded after his many one-night stands, and we’re only half-right, with the truth being something a bit more disturbing.

We eventually learn that the girl is his sister, Sissy (Carrie Mulligan), who eventually shows up unannounced in his apartment. Her presence disrupts Brandon’s mechanical life in more ways than one, as his wanton behavior is obviously interrupted. However, Sissy’s arrival seems to also awaken something deep inside him; something about their interaction is, once again, cold and unfeeling, and McQueen manages to produce a certain intensity between them.

That’s sort of the contradiction lying at the heart of “Shame”; while it is frigid, it’s difficult to deny its intensity, as one can constantly feel this film moving to some sort of boiling point. It’s a film of quiet, unspoken moments that still say a lot; consider when Sissy sings a dour version of “New York, New York,” typically a song brimming with hope. Here, though, it’s being delivered with a timbre that betrays her broken dreams, and we see that it’s moved Brandon to tears.

This is one of the film’s first big hints, and it’s littered with more subtle moments that are fascinating to behold. Fassbender and Mulligan have crafted two compellingly broken characters here; I feel like they’d be just as interesting to watch if they had separate movies, particularly Fassbender’s sex addict. His affliction carries a certain connotation that we associate with sleazebags, but Brandon is a rather calculated individual who has seemingly measured out his life and anticipated all of his movements. Essentially a yuppie, he fakes his way through his interactions at work, putting on an air of dignity that gets stripped away once we glimpse into his private life.

Even then, however, it’s difficult to say that we truly know him, nor is it easy to condemn him. McQueen treats him like a victim of a disease that’s consumed him; it’s so bad that he’s even taken to downloading copious amounts of porn on his work computer and masturbating in the bathroom stalls. When he sees a pretty girl on the subway, he follows her not with the unsettling intent of a stalker, but with the pitiful desperation of a dog chasing after a car.

Fassbender is lain bare here, at least physically; emotionally, he remains a bit of an enigma, rarely opening up. At one point, he espouses his worldview of romance and relationships, claiming to not believe in any of it. And how could he when his experiences with the opposite sex rarely last past awkward post-sex exchanges with call girls? He is clearly hard to relate to (at least for most people)--on some level, this is a story of a good-looking NYC yuppie getting to have a copious amount of sex, a fact that may further put you off. If the story weren’t so inherently specific and personal to this character, one might say Brandon is representative of a modern male ego whose sex drive has outrun any sort of actual passion for life.

But it is a bit more specific than that, as “Shame” is a small, intimate tragedy of siblings. On the surface, Sissy seems to be a bit different from Brandon, at least in her gregarious and unreserved manners. She’s maybe even a little bit too outgoing and casual with her brother, even, which is something that’s infuriating to him. All of this is betrayed by a certain dainty frailty that Mulligan finds in the character; it’s a brave turn in a brave film because she’s tasked with portraying a similarly damaged character with less screen time. “Shame” is ostensibly Brandon’s story, and the narrative’s placing of Sissy on the backburner again reflects what he has done to her out of guilt and repression.

Like anything that’s repressed, the hidden shame shared between the two eventually explodes; you’ll probably have guessed at what the title refers to pretty easily. No matter--this isn’t a film that’s relying on narrative shocks, nor is it really trying to hide anything--it’s bold, daring, and frank with both its casual sexual exploits and its emotional distance. For a film concerned with one of mankind’s most intense, passionate pleasures, it’s remarkably frosty. McQueen doesn’t blink and dares you to, as, for all its rigid ugliness, “Shame” is alluring to watch, even if it doesn’t invite you all the way in.

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originally posted: 12/03/11 09:03:31
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 68th Venice International Film Festival For more in the 68th Venice International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 New York Film Festival For more in the 2011 New York Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Austin Film Festival For more in the 2011 Austin Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Telluride Film Festival For more in the 2011 Telluride Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 34th Starz Denver Film Festival For more in the 34th Starz Denver Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

11/05/15 David Hollingsworth Unflinching depiction of sexual addiction 5 stars
12/29/13 Monday Morning We used to just call it "jacking off too much." It led to carpal tunnel syndrome. 4 stars
11/27/13 Shaun A The crying, anger and sense of family connected despite the uncomfortable subject. 5 stars
10/08/12 mr.mike Agree with PAUL and Sean. 4 stars
7/21/12 Sean Harrison Brilliant film, but not for everyone. 5 stars
5/27/12 danny Great performances, weak film 4 stars
12/21/11 andy Best NCR17 film I ever seen, intense and exciting drama..Lots of nudity 4 stars
12/06/11 Saurs Asinine wankfest thinly disguised as some kind of social "commentary" 2 stars
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  02-Dec-2011 (NC-17)
  DVD: 17-Apr-2012


  DVD: 17-Apr-2012

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