film review: Shame (2011)

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Shame poster, Michael Fassbender, Steve McQueenShame.

In more ways than one.

Man of the moment, Michael Fassbender, plays Brandon Sullivan, an Irish-American business suit type with an addiction to porn and sex with anonymous strangers. His life is going… relatively well really. His job hasn’t yet cottoned on to his problem – or at the least he must be making them enough money for it to not be a problem – and the ladies seem to fall at his feet. That is until his hot mess of a sister (Carey Mulligan) turns up.

That’s pretty much it. Ah no, it’s not really but it may as well be.

To be honest, I was sorely disappointed by Shame. There was so much buzz, so much hype around it and I just don’t think it’s worthy.

Which is not to say that you shouldn’t see it, Michael Fassbender puts on an excellent performance, one that may even warrant the honour of an Oscar nomination, but – in my opinion of course – there isn’t much more reason to see it. I’m just not sure why it’s a film at all. It is an intimate and granular portrait of a man consumed by his demons, no doubt, but as a film it just didn’t make for compelling viewing, for me.

Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised. Looking back over my review of director Steve McQueen’s last film, Hunger, I had similar issues. Not quite the same but similar. In Hunger we weren’t shown any of the motivations for the characters. That wasn’t a problem for it though, there was a delicate balance to be struck in telling the story of Bobby Sands’ last days on earth and McQueen managed it. Shame is an entirely different kind of story though and I think McQueen needed to take a chance here and bring us a more critical eye, or perhaps a more benign one, I’m not fussy. Any kind of commentary would have been welcome.

Like in Hunger, Fassbender’s nymphomaniac exists without any context or motivation. He is an empty vessel, waiting to be (ful)filled. We never get a sense of who he is beyond his addiction and we never… get beyond his addiction. There are some excellent and moving scenes with Mulligan but there’s a tendency to stifle the emotion. Which is, ostensibly, the perogative of the character but as a viewer it merely leads to frustration.

It’s also, probably, worth mention that this is an 18 rated movie and, as you would expect, is rife with relatively explicit scenes of a sexual nature. His hypersexuality is depicted time and time again, to the point that it gets quite boring. I imagine perhaps this is the point… however, it still means you’re boring your audience.

It is, therefore, a shame. Shame, because I think that there’s a lot more in the story that could have been explored. Shame, that Fassbender’s fantastically nuanced performance lies flat in a film that seems content to pinwheel around random meaningless encounters. And lastly, Shame, because I had to sit through another movie where Carey Mulligan seems intent on maintaining her 70:30, crying to not-crying, ratio of screen time.

I feel like I’m being unecessarily harsh. There were things I liked about it… I liked how it looked. There were some nice shots, I particularly liked the running scene. I liked the music… I didn’t actually hate the film. Fassbender gives us a perfect, outsider sense of who Sullivan is at this point in his life. As a portrait of a man, it is crystalline. You feel his torment in his eyes, in the lines of his face… But there’s just nothing there at the core. I don’t know what this film was trying to say to me… All I can say is… Why?

And don’t get me started on the ending. I was truly riled by the ending. I’m not going to give it away but I could probably write another few paragraphs on what was wrong with the 5 mins or so of the film…

… Sorry, I just had to get that in there.


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