Steve McQueen and Michael Fassbender are building a body of work together that is demanding, intellectually rigorous, and deeply felt, and if they continue, I feel like it will be a privilege to watch what they produce as collaborators. Their new film “Shame” is incredibly potent, a disturbing and visceral film about the ways we cope with the things that drive us, and the ways we destroy ourselves for who we are. It is one of the year’s very best films, and a major artistic accomplishment.
Much of what drives the characters in the film is unspoken, and yet “Shame” manages to communicate volumes with its silence. McQueen is a master of subtext, and from the very beginning of the film, he’s asking you to pay close attention, to connect the dots, and if you are willing to do that, it’s a wrenching experience. I love that the film doesn’t explain everything to you, because it’s all in there. It is also a formally impressive piece of film craft, and I think McQueen is one of those guys we need to watch closely. He’s building these films to endure, and they are rewarding because of just how much he’s layered into them.
“Shame” tells the story of Brandon, an executive working in New York, and the way he uses sex as a non-stop anesthetic, a buffer that allows him to experience something like intimacy without ever having to reveal himself to anyone. He thinks about sex constantly, and he’s perfectly happy to pay for it since that means no complications. Brandon seems to barely be a human being when we meet him in the film. He’s a husk. He’s one urge, repeated on a loop, with nothing else complicating it. Sure, he can flash a smile and make some small talk and pretend to be like everyone else, but he’s not, and watching him move through his day, it’s obvious he’s leading a double life. At the office, he turns on his human face, smiles when he’s supposed to, reacts to the proper emotional cues, and generally charms the people he deals with. After hours, it’s like he sheds that skin completely, and he indulges in a routine of random encounters, always on the prowl. He looks at each woman he meets or sees as a possible hole to fill, and little else. He’s almost scary in the empty way he regards the world.
There’s one ritual we see him play out a few times that only gains meaning later in the film. There’s a message on his voice mail that he plays each time he’s finished having sex, each time he’s shown the woman du jour out, and as he listens, he walks around the apartment naked, still soaked in the sweat from the latest session. The person on the machine doesn’t identify herself, but it’s apparent that her voice provokes a reaction from Brandon. Then one afternoon he comes home and someone’s in his house, his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan). He’s not happy to see her, either. Right away, her presence stirs something in him, something that he would rather keep buried. Her behavior is just as inappropriate, just as damaged as his, but different. When she acts out, it’s not random at all. It’s designed to hurt Brandon, to shake him up, and she gets the reaction she’s looking for.
This isn’t really a film about plot or about big story points. It’s just an observational look into the lives of these two broken people, and no matter what, they just keep sinking deeper, little by little, unable to stop themselves. Both Fassbender and Mulligan reach deep for this one, and they give haunted performances. I found their work deeply affecting, and for Fassbender, this is further proof that he’s one of the main guys working right now that you can turn to when you have a difficult piece of material that everyone’s afraid of. Fassbender seems to know no fear at all, and he never makes the mistake of trying to smooth off Brandon’s rough edges. He actually seems determined to see how far he can go while still keeping this guy recognizably human on some level.
The film takes a familiar downward spiral, and we’ve certainly seen the basic shape of this material in other addiction films, but what made it work for me is the way McQueen handles things, and the way Sean Bobbitt’s photography and Harry Escott’s score work as a sort of hypnosis. It’s is mesmerizingly made, and McQueen keeps Brandon at an emotional reserve as long as he can so that when we finale see him break, it is shattering for us as well. The film may not flinch from the material it deals with, and there’s a good chance they’ll end up with an NC-17 rating as a result, but it is ultimately about the struggle we all face each day with emptiness and our own histories. We may not be driven as far as Brandon and Sissy, but the exaggeration only works to underscore just how important these questions are to us as human beings.
Fox Searchlight will release “Shame” in the US sometime before the end of the year.