As far as addiction dramas can go, Shame may play itself out in a straightforward manner but McQueen never holds back with showing the effects of such upon one’s one life. In this particular case, he focuses on the sex addiction of a New Yorker, whose life functions much like that of any other person you may know, but there is always a present sense of self-destruction here. As a follow-up to McQueen’s often difficult debut film Hunger, what Shame shows is another journey that still remains every bit as emotionally draining an experience – one that reflects a struggle that can only ruin your life all the more. Yet what makes McQueen’s vision ever so fascinating comes right from how he explores what provokes the very worst in these habits before they manifest themselves into something dangerous. If there’s anything else that makes McQueen’s film so beautifully resonant, it doesn’t limit itself only to being about sex addiction, but also about a sense of disconnect that continuously breaks people apart from one another – something that’ll only remain all the more prevalent in the days passing.
Michael Fassbender stars as Brandon, a business executive residing in New York City with a compulsive addiction to sex. On a regular week for him, he views pornography even on his own office computer, brings prostitutes to his own apartment, and even hits on fellow female employees. From observing the first few days of Brandon’s own routine, McQueen already presents the very idea that he already has his own life planned in a very meticulous manner, because his addiction has also become the very manner to which he chooses to live every minute of his own life. Everything starts crumbling down all the more though, after his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) unexpectedly ends up moving into his apartment, bringing back many painful memories for him and causing his own planned lifestyle to spiral out of control. McQueen already keeps us aware of the destructive nature of Brandon’s addiction, but he never loses touch of a sense of humanity in the character he has crafted here.
Brandon’s sex addiction is one among many things that continues to destroy his life as we already see the very worst of it taking control over him, but McQueen never sticks only to the surface of what forms his worst habits. Akin to what McQueen had already achieved in Hunger, what he shows us in Shame does not hold back with the beautiful long takes, observing the addiction transforming Brandon into another person outright. Brandon’s sex addiction goes as far as him actively trying to alienate the women of his own life, even his own sister – but there’s still a feeling of thoughtfulness present in how McQueen observes the many relationships that Brandon forms with those around him. Yet McQueen never paints Brandon’s sex addiction in a very straightforward manner either, not simply by showing the roots of his addiction leading up to a point of self-destruction. But in McQueen’s eyes, understanding Brandon as a figure cannot stay simply on the surface in order to get to the bones of an emotionally harrowing journey.
Fassbender’s performance is one that is built upon pure misery from the first scene to last, but even in those sequences where you find himself so into the sex is where Shame becomes even more draining. McQueen never makes these moments feel erotic, but destructive – you feel in these moments that Brandon is still missing something important from his own life. You feel every bit of his descent only pulling him further down all the more, but Fassbender’s misery still remains a key factor into making such a complicated man feel exactly like that. In the role of his sister, Carey Mulligan, while not nearly as prominent as Fassbender, still echoes that brokenness in her performance. In a standout moment that consists of the two of them talking, McQueen observes that brokenness without having to break the shot much like what he achieved in Hunger. But you see the missing pieces of these people’s lives, only coming to haunt Brandon and Sissy all the more, but in every bit as beautiful as it is, it’s so painfully heartbreaking too.
Yet something that I love about Shame is that even if it may present itself as any other straightforward addiction drama, it never concludes with a clear resolution. It feels like a moment of reflection, because it haunts with past mistakes that almost feel irredeemable by this point onward. But leading up to this very moment, we already find that Brandon has been continuously destroying his own life all the more because he chooses to. It’s his self-hatred that in turn, made the lives of people so close to him miserable in the process, and it soon creates something more haunting. Like life, there’s no clear answer as to whether or not this destructive addiction would even reform Brandon for the better, no matter how much he tries. But there’s nothing more painful than the very feeling that he can’t change, which McQueen lingers on – creating a harrowing experience from start to finish.
Shame is a film all about self-hatred – if that title couldn’t be any more apt. But McQueen never dehumanizes his characters because of the sort of harmful activities that they’ve ended up making themselves a part of. You see a broken people inside of a city that presents itself as being happy, but they’re also trying to understand why they feel so broken apart from one another. And given the film’s subject matter, Shame will never be an easy watch, but it never feels any less rewarding – because McQueen gets down to the bones of the psychology that forms these destructive habits. McQueen already knows that these affairs would never have simple answers, much like those we think can be accomplished quickly. You know that this shame is something that runs rampant through a populated city, it’s never something where easy answers can come and go.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Fox Searchlight.
Directed by Steve McQueen
Screenplay by Steve McQueen, Abi Morgan
Produced by Iain Canning, Emile Sherman
Starring Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale, Nicole Beharie
Release Date: September 4, 2011
Running Time: 101 minutes