Review: Shame (2011)


For an alternate take on Shame, check out Kevin Ketchum’s review.

Shame presents a fierce, urgent, aggressively artistic portrait of addiction and need in this modern age of isolationism. In a very singular character study, the film manages to speak volumes about societal downfall in a world seemingly hell-bent on numbing the pain with countless stimuli. Being a part of “the world” no longer requires being a part of society – one could ostensibly be fully connected to the world at large without ever actually interacting with a human being. In this digitized, pixilated cyber-utopia, people become organic “apps,” there to be used when desired and discarded when they’ve served their purpose. Intimacy becomes a hindrance to the momentary satisfaction of base urges. Those urges become the energy that fuels the isolated soul.

Lofty cautionary description, I know. But in growing segments of a fearful, threatened, dissonant society, such cold, septic withdrawal is very real. One such example is Brandon (Michael Fassbender), whose surface handsomeness and professional success veil a life driven by chronic addiction. In a brilliant opening sequence, we sense the inward seclusion that simultaneously compels him and tortures him. He wakes – naked, alone – with the emotion of the film’s title vaguely apparent on his face. He emerges from the bed and walks through his sterile New York apartment. The same routine, every day – walk to the answering machine, ignore a message from a loved one, masturbate in the shower, and head off to work. It is a testament to director Steve McQueen’s brilliant visual storytelling that we only glimpse one morning of these actions but are fully aware it is just a snapshot of a long-standing daily routine.

The loved one on the answering machine is Sissy (Carey Mulligan), Brandon’s sister, whose intrusion interrupts the flow of Brandon’s lifestyle, which is a carefully controlled descent into hell. He sleepwalks through a cushy executive job, where his computer has been snatched for its hard drive full of porn, but his more overtly horny boss (James Badge Dale) is too ignorant to make the connection. He stalks the streets of New York, sometimes casually picking up a woman at a bar, other times seducing a married woman on the subway with his eyes, and often returning home to a night of internet porn and/or sex with a prostitute. The sex functions as a numbing agent – a drug-like fix that keeps Brandon afloat in a life in which he would otherwise drown. But when Sissy arrives unannounced, their uncomfortable brother-sister dynamic alters Brandon’s path.

She’s a bleach-blonde nightclub singer on a more literal path to destruction – wild, reckless, and occasionally suicidal – a more tangible death spiral than Brandon’s more structured psychosexual self-torture. Their interactions play like a cross between bratty sibling bickering and uncomfortable flirtation, hinting at a painful past the film doesn’t state, and it shouldn’t – this is a portrait of a tortured life’s results, not its antecedents.

McQueen, whose Hunger unveiled an expressive new artistic voice (as well the budding genius of Fassbender), layers Shame in alternating styles. It’s first act is vividly, expressly artistic, with McQueen’s abstract visuals informing the loose narrative with blistering implications while Harry Escott’s urgent original score constantly plays over each sequence like a paranoid symphony. Then the filmmaker pulls back, rendering the film’s extended second act in silent naturalism, a verite portrait of obsession and desperate need. Brandon follows a fairly typical arc for a tragic hero, stumbling upon an opportunity for redemption that is recklessly discordant to his dependence on the cold sexuality, but culminating in a furious cacophony of sound and image that returns the film to its insistently artistic origins. The stylistic progression is purposeful and uncanny – encasing a traditional narrative within a more symbolic framework, each form deepening the other, blended to distill the most complete representation of a life full of human wounds never allowed to heal. They are merely patched by a tourniquet of information-age detachment.

Shame is a work of art, living and breathing, and it needs to be experienced more than once. By letting the film percolate, one can move past a knee-jerk response and allow the ideas to coalesce. The problem with some early reviews of Shame is their reactionary nature, identifying a single root cause for “sexual addiction” and applying it as the film’s message. Such scapegoating resembles an addict bargaining to continue getting his/her fix. That, to me, speaks to the film’s truest message – there is no one cause, no simple answer, and no easy escape from a perilous life of addiction.

[notification type=”star”]88/100 ~ GREAT. Shame is a living, breathing work of art that distills a tortuous life of obsession and need in this age of isolationism.[/notification]


About Author

I married into the cult of cinema at a very young age - I wasn't of legal marriage age, but I didn't care. It has taken advantage of me and abused me many times. Yet I stay in this marriage because I'm obsessed and consumed. Don't try to save me -- I'm too far gone.