(No longer in theaters)
Iain Canning, Emile Sherman
Dec 2, 2011
Michael Fassbender fans, you’re in for a treat: The handsome Irish actor whips Keira Knightley’s bare butt in A Dangerous Method and shows his pickle in Shame. The pickle shot is extraneous, as is the bush shot of Carey Mulligan in the shower, but the NC-17 rating will let Shame director Steve McQueen (not the dead star) proclaim, “The actors are naked, I tell you. Emotionally and physically.” He opens with the Irish-born, New Jersey–raised Brandon Sullivan (Fassbender) lying naked on his bed, staring forlornly into space after another meaningless sexual encounter. The man is already marinating in his shame, so there’s nowhere to go but down. The title says it all.
Brandon is not a predator — he’s magnetic enough that his pickups are soft sells. But he prefers prostitutes and online sex-chats and porn: Nothing with emotional commitment. His one tie is to his sister, Sissy (Mulligan), a nightclub singer who moves in with him and whom we watch slowly torture the song “New York, New York” to death. (Her funereal performance is meant to be bitterly ironic.) Sissy also sleeps around a lot, but, unlike her brother, gets too emotionally committed too fast. Each sibling embarrasses the other, but they’re stuck together in Brandon’s big, faceless, far West Side apartment with its views of New Jersey.
McQueen films his characters like specimens in a jar, but the stakes are so high that the actors deliver. There are some excellent scenes, the best one wordless. Brandon stares at a woman on the subway, mentally undressing her, and she, after much squirmy hesitation, seems to mentally undress him back. (I bet the actress, Lucy Walters, will get a lot of offers — er, parts — after this.) The other good scene comes early, when Brandon overhears his sister plead on the phone with a lover not to leave her. Mulligan hits some startling notes: Sissy’s fear of abandonment is primal.
The rest of Shame is so obvious that it makes a great gigglefest, but a lot of people watch in awe, cued by Harry Escott’s plaintive drone of a score, which sounds too much like Max Richter. When Brandon flees a potential girlfriend (Nicole Beharie) because the sex would be too, you know, intimate, he sinks to a new low. He goes to a gay bar and lets an anonymous patron suck him off. The horror, the horror. Then he has an orgy (with women) in which he looks like Christ on the cross and opens his mouth in a silent scream of anguish. Since McQueen has told us so little about Brandon’s or his sister’s past, we have no insight into how the siblings turned out the way they did. It’s empty sex for us, too.