For movie fans who are willing to buckle up, there's no doubt that McQueen delivers an experience that simultaneously offers beautiful filmmaking and a welcome punch to the gut.
Michael Fassbender is quickly becoming one of the most sought-after actors in Hollywood - with lauded performances that include Lieutenant Archie Hicox in Inglourious Basterds, as well as a younger, more aggressive, Magneto in X-Men: First Class.
However, while killing Nazis and eradicating the human race might sound controversial in some circles - without question, Fassbender takes on his most challenging (as well as vulnerable) role in director Steve McQueen's Shame. Is the character drama, about a sex-addicted New York business man, another high mark on the actor's increasingly robust resume? Or does McQueen fail to support Fassbender's ambitions with a thin cinematic offering?
Fortunately, not only does Shame feature a powerful and gut-wrenching performance from Fassbender, but nearly everyone else involved also steps up to the plate - including McQueen and co-star Carey Mulligan (Drive and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps). Shame definitely isn't going to be for everyone - given the sheer amount of physical violence and sexual encounters depicted onscreen - but there's no doubt that for anyone open to a challenging and stylish film, McQueen's latest effort is likely to deliver a lasting impression.
Shame is a no-holds-barred look into the life of Brandon Sullivan (Fassbender), a successful Wall Street suit who is crippled by sexual addiction and a complicated relationship with his sister, Sissy (Mulligan), who moves in with him after fleeing Los Angeles. McQueen doesn't hand-hold his audience, as the catalyst for the siblings' arrested development is never fully revealed. That said, both Brandon and Sissy have lasting scars that make it hard for them to function - and, in spite of their mutual attempts to care for one another, routinely cause each of them to regress into chaos.
Before anyone gets the wrong impression, Brandon is not a modern day American Psycho type. He's a relatable everyman - longing to connect with others, albeit through misguided and hollow encounters. While he doesn't shy away from the moral low-ground (approaching married women or paying for escorts), Brandon isn't a psychopath - he is capable of caring for others. He carries his addiction as a conscious weight on his back and, from time to time, comes very close to making tangible connections. A major success of the film is Fassbender's ability to place Brandon in a middle ground where audiences will quickly care about the character - in spite of his cycle of reckless actions and questionable encounters.
Similarly, despite acting as a significant catalyst that knocks Brandon deeper into chaos, Sissy is equally fascinating and fully realized - even if her troubled "cutter" character, as well as her effect on Brandon, may be a little too familiar for filmgoers. That said, the familiarity doesn't detract from Mulligan's performance or the on-screen drama, as some of Shame's most fascinating and profound moments occur between the brother and sister pair. One such moment, where Sissy performs a rendition of Sinatra's "New York, New York" in a posh cocktail lounge, not only speaks volumes about the siblings' relationship, but cements Mulligan as one of the most captivating up-and-coming actresses in Hollywood.
While there aren't many high-profile supporting characters outside of Brandon and Sissy, McQueen depicts a number of bold and challenging set-pieces that film-fans are bound to relish. A number of key scenes in Shame are captured in a single take - with none of the dizzying back and forth jump cuts that seem to dominate modern filmmaking. Instead of a patchwork composed with isolated line readings, Shame features a number of extended scenes that successfully capture captivating interactions between the film's performers.
Additionally, some skeptics might point to Shame as a gratuitous film that glorifies promiscuity, but despite an abundance of sexual content, it's hard to argue that any of these encounters should have been taken out or toned down, as each of these scenes successfully communicate some larger point about the characters.
Admittedly, some viewers will have a hard time sitting through certain portions of the film, which is why the MPAA stamped Shame with a NC-17 rating; however, McQueen's dedication to his subject, even one as messy as Brandon, ultimately results in an inspired onscreen experience. Many filmmakers are held-back by focus testing as well as studio meddling - all in service of making their films easier on mainstream audiences. It's refreshing to see a movie that is unabashedly committed to the story at hand - even when certain choices might mean a tougher sell and less box office dollars.
Some filmgoers won't be able to handle Shame, but for movie fans who are willing to buckle up, there's no doubt that McQueen delivers an experience that simultaneously offers beautiful filmmaking and a welcome punch to the gut.
If you’re still on the fence about Shame, check out the green-band trailer below - or head over to our NSFW Shame red-band trailer post:
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Shame is now playing in limited release.