If you’re masturbating while reading this, please stop. Perhaps you googled ‘Porn’, ‘Fassbender Wang’ or ‘Carey Mulligan pouting’ and stumbled across this review. If so, please, put your genitals away and pull your pants up. But don’t stop reading, because there’s a very good chance this film might be for you. Just not for the reasons you thought.
New York office worker Brandon Sullivan craves sexual gratification. He jerks off at home, he jerks off at work and he fucks random women, but the pleasure he once derived from his onanistic activities and bedroom encounters is long gone. When his sister Sissy cannonballs back into his life, Brandon attempts to affect his behaviour. But the monkey on his back has his claws in tight…
Rather than exclusively being a film about Michael Fassbender’s penis (even if a large amount of the publicity surrounding the film seems to think it is, and it does feature prominently), Shame is the often heartbreaking story of a lonely man struggling with an addiction.
The closest cinematic equivalent for Shame isn’t something equally sexually charged like Last Tango In Paris, but instead lies within horror, namely American Psycho: the goliath, disassociating buildings, the trendy and soulless bars of Manhatten, the cold, minimal apartments and in Brendon the same pathology of Patrick Bateman, a man completely disconnected from others. The primary difference, however, is Brendon is not simply, “simply not there”.
Where Mary Harron’s late 90’s classic used humour to spotlight the tragedy of the character, McQueen openly invites us to embrace the possibility of sympathy for this ‘deviant’. To emphasise this, Brendon’s boss is a family man cheating on his wife, while Brandon remains strict to his anti-monogamy stance. He truly believes that his actions hurt no-one but himself.
This sympathy, and the reason for a great many of the plaudits (including a Cannes win and a sure lock for an Oscar nomination), lies with Fassbender making it possible for us to care. His face empty, his eyes crying out for something other than the life he’s leading. In one stand out scene he watches his sister Sissy (another in a string of memorable roles by Carey Mulligan) breathlessly cover New York, New York. If it wasn’t such a tender moment you’d be reading some immature play on the words ‘bodily fluid’ and ‘eye’ right about now.
There are occasional faults. A past hinted at by his sister, though never explained, feels lazy, and just offers the audience the fact that the siblings came from “a bad place”. Perhaps the screenwriter sees the cause of his behaviour as another film entirely. She might be right.
More troubling, a last act visit to a location to show Brandon’s ‘rock bottom’ is dangerously close to offensive. Without spoiling, and the next sentence may spoil so skip it if you want to go in entirely glacial, a major part of the ending verges far to close to saying “Look you could end up liking bottoms! Wouldn’t that be the worst thing ever!”.
A think piece. Destined to cause debate, Shame is a film that will stay with you long after you’ve stopped giggling at Fassbender’s wang. It’s also a great advertisement for British film, made by a great director (Steve McQueen), written by a wonderful scribe (Abi Morgan), acted perfectly by Fassbender and Mulligan and put together by two of the best producers working today (Emile Sherman and Iain Canning). Go see.