johnlink ranks SHAME (2011)

Michael Fassbender has exploded on to the scene in the past couple of years with turns in the retro X-MEN film and PROMETHEUS, among others. SHAME is a small NC-17 film he made with Director Steve McQueen about a successful loner who doesn’t realize just how uncontrollably addicted to sex he has become. This is certainly not light fare, and I was happy to see that it was getting a run on HBO.


I watched SHAME (2011) on 1.17.12. It was my first viewing of the movie.

SHAME opens with the daily routine of Brandon (Fassbender). He wakes up, strolls around naked, ignores a voicemail from his sister, goes to work (where he is successful), has a sexual encounter. Rinse and repeat. The film shows us several days of this repetition in an attempt to make sure we know who Brandon is: Successful. Attractive. Desirable. Distant. He is not a bad guy; on the contrary women love him. But he doesn’t stick around too long.

His means of quenching his sexual appetite is varied: internet porn, masturbating at work, prostitutes, women at bars. Later, when things unravel a bit, we see that his house is filled with sex toys, porn mags, and dirty videos. He has a sexual encounter with a man to quench his need for relief. He literally does not care where or how the sex comes, as long as he gets it.

The device which serves as his wake-up call is his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), who shows up unexpectedly. They are both off-center. When he walks into his house to discover her naked in his shower, he does not leave. He shows no signs of embarrassment  and she shows no desire to cover up. Nudity does not necessarily translate to sexuality, and we instantly begin to associate her pathos with his, even if they are very different people.

Despite those differences, Sissy serves as a mirror for Brandon. Her presence makes him begin to realize how lost he has become. To the outside world, his character is not unlike the character of Patrick Bateman in AMERICAN PSYCHO. But whereas Patrick (seemingly) takes his anger out on the world, Brandon internalizes everything. He seems to loathe himself. Sex is a drug. Indeed, the momentary relief seems worthwhile as he is doing it, but the self-loathing (the titular SHAME) permeates his life whenever he is not acting out in a sexual manner.

Of course, the real self-loathing doesn’t come until he falls for a girl and can’t get it up. Impotence seemed destined to be a plot point from the start of this movie and, of course, the movie didn’t fail to disappoint. Perhaps I wish a less obvious choice had been made for the act three twist, but you can’t have everything you want in life.

I appreciate this film for its patience and its attention to detail. Perhaps some of the art direction is a bit in-your-face. Two instances which come to mind involve Brandon having sex in front of a bit of graffiti which reads ‘fuck’ and a later moment where he seats himself directly in front of a sign on a train proclaiming the transit service’s desire for self-improvement. Overall, though, I don’t have a problem with how this film was shot. When Sissy sleeps with Brandon’s boss, he runs (literally) out of the house to try to get away. It’s a device used in films like TREE OF LIFE, FORREST GUMP. In SHAME, a long tracking shot follows Brandon for several minutes. This seems like a pointless meandering, or a bit of directorial masturbation at least, and it probably is. The point is to show that Brandon cannot escape by running away. Of course we get that after fifteen seconds, even if the shot goes on for three minutes.

There’s a lot of that sort of thing which makes this movie less than enthralling. While Fassbender gives a major performance here, I couldn’t help but feel like the script only had enough for a seventy minute movie, and they stretched it out another thirty minutes. I usually love the 70s-slow pacing of a good character drama, but SHAME felt repetitive at times and unnecessarily prolonged at others.

None of that detracts from the thematic power of the movie, even if this isn’t a film which was a revelation for me. The point is that, indeed, sex addicts are as vulnerable as drug addicts. They are unhealthy, and they need help. Got it. Is there hope in the last moment of the film? McQueen directs it in much the same way as the last moment of INCEPTION, that is to say with ambiguity. I think the answer lies in the editing and the shot selection and the previous scars on Sissy’s arm. We didn’t see THE moment of revelation for Brandon, instead we saw A moment. Being as ambiguous as possible in a desire to not spoil anything; I’m sure he gets off that train, and in doing so, goes off the wagon.



Haunting and effective music throughout this film really sets a melancholy and hopeless tone. It certainly serves its intended purpose.




~ by johnlink00 on January 18, 2013.

3 Responses to “johnlink ranks SHAME (2011)”

  1. Nice review John. Think this film is great and the direction is superb. I do actually really like the running scene, I don’t know why, I just thought it was superbly shot. And I thought Fassbender and Mulligan were brilliant, great performances.

    • Spectacular performances, no doubt. And I don’t mind any of the filmmaking choices in-and-of themselves. The running man, the full song, the non-linear editing in the subway, the extended odd shot from behind of the two siblings talking on the couch during their most serious conversation… they are all interesting and unique choices. The nice parts didn’t add up to one great sum for me. It was a very good film, no doubt, but it didn’t come together for me the way the greats of that genre do.

  2. Closing with a cleverly inverted sense of ambiguity, Shame is an effective film both performance-wise and from a technical standpoint. Fassbender was so good, that it’s a real and total crime that he wasn’t nominated for an Oscar. Good review.

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