The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Sex is Bleak in a World of Shame

Written by: Kristen Lopez, Editor in Chief

In honor of the film’s release on DVD and Blu-ray this week, here’s my original review.  Go out and watch/buy the DVD this weekend (although gauge audience interest before adding this to your Friday Nite Movies with Friends line-up)

With the recent SOPA protests and the MPAA rallying to put out pro-SOPA ads it’s interesting to go back and look at their reason for being: to rate films. The MPAA has constantly been under fire for how they rate movies and which films get the dreaded NC-17. The latest film to come out under heavy controversy is director Steve McQueen’s film Shame, a stark and bleak portrait of a sex addict that’s racing towards a few Oscar nominations. While the movie itself is far from perfect, and the sex rather tame, the performance by leading man Michael Fassbender makes this one to see at your independent theater (this won’t be hitting mainstream theaters, trust me).

Brandon Sullivan (Fassbender) is a successful, handsome man living in New York. His biggest problem is his constant need for sex whether it’s with prostitutes or internet porn. When his needy, wayward sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) comes to stay with him, the two butt-heads as their need for some type of connection forces them to confront their demons.

Yep, this is the big NC-17 movie that was going to tear the world apart, and while it’s a shocking and revelatory movie it’s not the big shocker it’s touted as. The sex is there, and whether it’s being presented or just heard, it’s a constant presence in Brandon’s life. The life of sex addict may seem silly on the outside, but Shame presents it as a serious addiction that comes to destroy Brandon and his life. If Michael Fassbender didn’t take the role the character would be a smutty jerk, and by the end Fassbender shows us that performance. I’ve been a huge fan of the actor well before his recent rise to fame, but here he makes you love and hate him all at once. His charm and good looks are nothing new, and the ladies will definitely enjoy the actor baring himself both emotionally and literally on the screen. Brandon is a charming Lothario sure, but his intensity in certain instances makes for some truly uncomfortable moments. His urge for sex makes him undress every woman with his eyes and there are several moments where the women he’s talking to start to get physically uncomfortable. It all culminates with a three-minute dialogue exchange between him and a woman in a bar that is filled with the actor saying the filthiest things in the world. It starts off titillating but by the end you just feel dirty and afraid.

It’s this downward spiral that the movie seeks to show, not the world of obscene sex acts. The movie itself is not non-stop sex; in fact McQueen takes the time to let the camera linger on moments that involve people fully clothed. Carey Mulligan’s performance of “New York, New York” has been referenced by critics already but it is a spellbinding performance, one of the few scenes where brother and sister truly connect and understand each other for a fleeting instant. Mulligan gives an equally vulnerable performance, playing her character the complete opposite of Fassbender’s. Sissy is incredibly clingy, needy for male attention. From the opening moments where she’s crying over a man on the phone to just parading around her brother’s apartment in see-through clothes, this is a girl who is searching for male love and cannot seem to get it from lovers or her own brother.

Fassbender and Mulligan have electrifying chemistry and it borderlines on incestuous. Thankfully, McQueen doesn’t pander to cheap tactics but just the way Brandon looks at Sissy, or the way she cuddles with him in bed, tells the audience that these two were raised in a highly screwed up environment. Much like McQueen’s other film, the equally uncomfortable Hunger, not everything about the characters is presented, and much of it has to be inferred as the movie progresses.

With two amazing performances and subject matter that doesn’t present easy answers, Shame is far from perfect. The movie only clocks in at 99 minutes but it feels incredibly sluggish in certain parts. You see every degrading moment in Brandon’s life from eventual orgies and gay sex, which is needed to show him hitting bottom, but McQueen has a problem with letting his need for style take over, ultimately making the movie feel its overstayed its welcome. Also, there’s a manipulative third act tragedy that makes the movie itself feel desperate, not the character in peril. It’s a moment that’s meant to make Brandon shape up but it only feels that way because of the character in danger, not his want or need to change. With the movie not pandering to audience enjoyment so well before, it’s stupid to have the third act feel so Hollywood.

Regardless, this movie is all about Michael Fassbender, and to a lesser extent Carey Mulligan. I don’t think Shame will break any barriers with the NC-17 rating, mostly because the sex is rather tame, but the movie presents an honest depiction of sex addiction with a leading man who continues to shine!