In Shame, everything starts with a look. All sorts of possibilities exist in each one -- this time, maybe they'll do it pinned up against a wall, or from behind and bent over a chair, or standing up, grunting, hands plastered to a plate-glass window. It's always a leering gaze, a cold seduction that neither asks for nor suggests any intimacy. There's no passion behind it, just unnerving desire. It's an empty move toward an empty need.
And that's why we're in a subway car after the opening credits, riding cameraside with writer and director Steve McQueen, as Brandon (Michael Fassbender) stares all over a leggy redhead. She bats her lashes, turns away and blushes. He doesn't move. She smirks, eyes him again, then smiles. His face gives away nothing, but his eyes flash and burn. He's got her ... until she stands up, flashes an engagement ring and steps into the Manhattan bustle.
Shame lingers on moments like these, where city life seemingly pauses on a face, fading and muting the surroundings. It happens when Brandon stands pat while his boss (James Badge Dale) pathetically tries to pick up a gorgeous blonde, again while he tries to traditionally woo a co-worker (Nicole Beharie), and once more as his manic, needy sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) croons a cry-for-help cover of "New York, New York" in a crowded bar. Ignoring the fact that nobody quiets down for a lounge singer, McQueen deploys the tactic almost as often as he gets Fassbender to drop trou, which, as the NC-17 rating suggests, is all the damned time.
Plenty will be made about the adults-only rating, no doubt. Will Shame legitimize NC-17 movies? (No.) Was it necessary to see Fassbender, um, Fassenbend her? (Yes.) Does composer Harry Escott really score an orchestral rendition of an orgy? (Sadly, yes, and it's as painful as you'd guess.) The truth is that Shame doesn't merit any titles as an innovative film -- it's got dicks and tits, but it's not crusading for their cause. And while it's interested in the destructive affects of anonymous sex and pornography, to be sure, it's too overwrought to wallop any emotional punches.
That's the misstep where McQueen waffles and loses it. Brandon never seems to enjoy sex; whether he's jerking off in the office bathroom or humping a girl against a graffitied wall, he's got the same animal grimace on his face. Shame hones in on showing his struggle -- and Fassbender depicts it beautifully -- yet seems too timid to explore the grotesque emotional depths of his addiction. Even at Brandon's most depraved, when he's fingering a random, spoken-for girl at a bar, there's something missing. As a result, an understandably tragic story becomes something over-the-top and absolutely self-interested. Shame believes in a poignancy that's just not there.
McQueen drops hints throughout about Brandon and Sissy's rough childhood, so it's clear that there's reason enough for their stunted maturity issues. And, nodding to his days as an artist, McQueen leaves the rest to visuals; what we see is what we learn. His style does wonders for Shame's erotic flairs, framing sex as conceptual art while creating a savvy dissonance between New York's gritty temptations and antiseptic lifestyles. Still, the city seems shoehorned into ill-fitting purpose -- Brandon broods on the subway, goes on escape runs past Madison Square Garden, and ultimately breaks down, on his knees in the rain, at the end of Pier 54 on the Hudson. (That climax, of course, is juxtaposed with a climax.)
Shame is likely get more attention than it deserves, thanks to that taboo rating and the allure of a few naughty bits. And yes, it errs too far on the side of melodrama, leaving an ambiguous ending up for grabs when the credits finally roll. When it's not abusing itself, there's just enough worth admiring here -- it's sex, stripped down to its worst potential.
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