Directed by: Steve McQueen.
Written by: Steve McQueen and Abi Morgan.
Starring: Michael Fassbender (Brandon Sullivan), Carey Mulligan (Sissy Sullivan), James Badge Dale (David Fisher), Nicole Beharie (Marianne).
Spoiler Warning: This movie contains some spoilers, so you may want to avoid it and see the movie for yourself, which I urge you to do, as it is one of the very best films of the year. It is however almost unremittingly bleak. It is not a movie I would suggest you take a date to.
Every review of Steve McQueen’s Shame says that it is a movie about sex addiction, and in a way they are correct. Brandon (Michael Fassbender) is certainly a sex addict, and like most addicts, he no longer really enjoys what he is addicted to, but cannot stop himself. And yet, it’s not the sex addiction that Brandon is really ashamed of. Where ever that shame comes from is only hinted at during the course of the movie, but it certainly involves his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan), who is also screwed up because of whatever trauma impacted both of them during childhood. While Brandon has shut himself off from the world, afraid of any emotional connection to another human being, including Sissy who he does his best to ignore until she shows up in his shower one day, she has gone to opposite route, albeit with similar results. Both have used sex to fill whatever void they have, but while Brandon keeps everyone at a distance, Sissy seems to think that it is through sex that she’ll be able to forge an emotional connection with someone else – and it breaks her heart that she continually gets rejected. The guys she ends up sleeping with don’t want anything more than sex from her. And she needs more. These two people are probably damaged beyond repair.
When we meet Brandon, he is living his isolated existence, and not letting anything in. He is apparently very good at his job – whatever it is, as he seems to work at one of those “hip” companies where the boss, David (James Badge Dale) pretends that he is still the “cool guy” who just likes to hang out with his staff and keep everything casual. He even goes out with his employees to bars after work to try and pick up women (although he is married). But he tries too hard. Brandon doesn’t seem to try at all – and that is precisely why he succeeds. He just gazes at the women, speaks a few words in his charming Irish accent, and they are instantly attracted to him. And what a gaze he has. In one of the more disturbing scenes in the movie, he locks eyes on a pretty redhead on the subway. Not a word is spoken between the two of them, and yet watch how she reacts. At first she’s flattered by the look, and looks back and smile flirtatiously – but then Brandon doesn’t look away, he doesn’t smile; he just keeps looking with that same intense stare. She gradually becomes self conscious, uncomfortable, on the verge of tears, and flees – a close up on her engagement ring may give a clue as to why. She’ll return in the movie – and by that time, something will have changed in her – but then, something has changed in Brandon by then as well.
If Brandon doesn’t succeed – or doesn’t try – to pick someone up in a bar, it’s not real worry to him – he isn’t above hiring prostitutes to suit his needs – in fact they’re perfect for him, as they expect nothing but money in return. And even though Brandon is having more sex than anyone else, he still has a vast collection of porn – both cyber, and in “old school” formats of DVDs and magazines. It seems Brandon spends his entire life obsessed with sex – and even though it no longer brings him joy, he cannot stop.
This is when Sissy arrives. We’ve heard her voice on his answering machine a few times, but he has ignored her. He comes home one day, and she’s in his shower – and right away, we know there is something strange about this brother-sister relationship. She’s naked, and makes no effort to cover herself up, and he makes no effort to look away. She flaunts her sexuality in front of him, and while he is uncomfortable, he cannot look away. Whereas Brandon lives a controlled life, Sissy has gone wild. She drifts from one city to the next, never having a permanent place to stay, but always “hooking up” with some guy, who she insists she is in love with, even though they never last. She says she is a singer – and in one of the most memorable scenes of the year, proves that she is actually a beautiful singer. She sings a stripped down, slowed down version of New York, New York, McQueen’s camera cutting back and forth between a close up of her face and Brandon’s – who eventually starts to cry. The connection that happens between these two in this scene is unspoken – but broken soon thereafter, when Sissy brings David home with her – and has sex in his bed, and Brandon quietly implodes in the living room having to listen. What the hell is wrong with these two?
It will likely frustrate many viewers that McQueen never really explains the shared past that Brandon and Sissy have – but I do have theory. Some have speculated that incest was involved in their past – that at one point, this brother and sister slept together, but I don’t agree. I think it’s more likely that their father raped Sissy when the two were children. This would explain Brandon’s reaction when he hears David and Sissy having sex – his almost childlike recoil in horror (at one point, he practically gets in the fetal position). Once again, someone with power over Brandon (this time, his boss) is having sex with his sister, and he can hear it through the walls, but feels powerless to stop it. So what does he do? He literally runs away. It would also explain Sissy comment to Brandon that “We are not bad people. We just come from a bad place”, and could also explain Sissy’s teenage “cutting” that is alluded to, and why she equates sex with love. The shame Brandon feels is not because of his sex addiction, but because he never stopped what was going on – which is why he tries to “divorce” himself from Sissy – by telling her he’s not responsible for her. Of course, all of this is just a theory.
Near the end of the movie there is a virtuoso sequence, where in essence Brandon goes on a bender. We have seen him on a date with Marianne (Nicole Beharie), a woman he works with, and we have seen how he can in fact be charming, and even sweet. When it comes time to consummate their relationship however – he can’t. Emotions have got in the way, and his plumbing doesn’t work. To prove to him that he does, he goes out and finds sex where ever he can – with whoever he can.
Shame is an almost unbearably bleak movie from beginning to end. There is no joy in this film, because Brandon cannot feel joy – he cannot feel anything really. There is a lot of sex in the movie, but no eroticism. Despite the NC-17 rating in America, there is no way anyone with a brain could equate this movie with pornography, because porn gives the illusion of sex being fun – and no one has fun in Shame. Why then, is it such a great movie? Because it has to guts to take its characters seriously and look into the abyss alongside them. It is also one of the best acted movies of the year. Michael Fassbender has quickly become one of the best actors in the world, and he outdoes himself here, giving a remarkable performance, where often he is at his best when he isn’t saying anything, and we have to read his face. And Mulligan is his equal, although she never shuts up. She puts on a brave face, and tries to soldier through everything, but the weight of what she is carrying is simply too much. Like Fassbender, Mulligan has quickly become one of the best actresses in the world, and this is her best work to date – completely different than the repressed characters she has played up until now. They both deserve Oscars for this movie – but I’ll be happy if the Academy shows the courage to simply nominate them.
And the filmmaking by McQueen is excellent as well. Like his debut film Hunger (also starring Fassbender), McQueen likes to hold shots longer than most directors – the camera is essence staring down the actors. In just two films, he has established himself as one of the best directors in the world. Shame is not a film for everyone – but for those brave enough, it’s one of the year’s best.