There are few places less sexy than on a subway train but there’s Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender, Inglourious Basterds, Prometheus) in the middle of Shame, eyeing his next prey sitting opposite of him. They make flirtatious glances at each other; he sizes her up while she’s crossing her legs and shifting in her seat. As the train comes to a stop the woman (Lucy Walters) stands up, preparing to exit the train when we see that she’s either engaged or married, but doesn’t stop Brandon. He places his hand right below hers on the hand bar and stands right behind her as if to catch a whiff of her perfume. When the train door opens, she bolts and doesn’t look back. Brandon hesitates for a second and aggressively gives chase, but when he loses her in the crowd he turns around and heads back to get back on the train.
It’s one of the few conquests that gets away from Brandon, who suffers from a voracious appetite for sex–a small glimpse into his unhealthy addiction. For those who roll their eyes that the dependency is a legitimate problem–especially amongst men–have never seen Shame.
Earning an NC-17 rating by the MPAA, Shame is full of sexual encounters, yet few scenes could be deemed sexy; it is an intense character study, but not a very deep story because Brandon does not let anyone reach him on an intimate level. That doesn’t make him any less redeeming or irresistible, because his professional life–aside from having his hard drive flagged for pornography and masturbating in the men’s room–is flourishing. Brandon’s brow remains smooth and unfurrowed, until his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan, Drive), invades his life and disrupts his regimen.
Sissy is the polar opposite of Brandon. She’s an extrovert, a wayward traveling singer who always appears down on her luck and in need of emotional support–in other words, Sissy is an absolute burden. But she is trying to connect with Brandon. She knows she has her own imperfections and yet believes she can help him through his. “We’re not bad people,” Sissy hints. “We just come from a bad place.”
Soon after, Brandon becomes cognizant of his addiction, gives reform a passive attempt and tries to make a real connection too, with co-worker Marianne (Nicole Beharie). They meet after work and push past awkward silences, the small chit-chat, and playful dialogue exchanged during a successful first date. What Marianne did not see was Brandon wasting time, trying to stall the beginning of the date because he didn’t want to get emotionally involved. This night of hope is erased less than 24 hours later when his attempt to be sexual with Marianne–a step she willingly invites–goes awry.
Shame is written and directed expertly by British filmmaker Steve McQueen, who reunites with Fassbender, whom he helmed in Hunger back in 2008. Be on the lookout for his upcoming film, Twelve Years A Slave staring Fassbender, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Brad Pitt and Pariah star Adepero Oduye. Just like their first collaboration, McQueen brings out the very best in his lead–Fassbender gives an unflinching and courageous performance that is absorbing as it is chilling.
Not to be outdone, Mulligan (who is often cast adorable and cute) comes prepared to stand eye-to-eye with Fassbender, despite her character’s different but equally unflattering condition. Her personal life is a car wreck; she has a one-night stand with Brandon’s boss (James Badge Dale, Rubicon) and lacks any kind of stability.
Brother and sister are fractured individuals–still scarred from some unspeakable event(s) from their pasts, and it continues to manifest in their self-destructive personalities. Even though they try to avoid each other, they are destined to collide, unable to detach themselves from their shared memories and care for one another.
There’s not much as far as extras are concerned, and that’s a shame, for the lack of a better word. We get four separate three-minute electronic press kit featurettes, of which are gathered from one brief interview session with both Fassbender, Mulligan and McQueen on set. There’s a five-minute EPK from the Fox Movie Channel that fives a bit more depth than the others, only slightly, but sadly that’s the lone extra in standard definition. The featurettes merely add to the longing desire for an audio commentary done by McQueen and Fassbender. With that absence, there is little added value unless you consider a DVD and the digital copy to be beneficial.
Sean Bobbit’s stunning cinematography must be seen on blu-ray though. The details on the fabrics, the dramatic lighting and the scenery are much more distinct in the low-lit, night scenes, and the hues, when present, are punchier but not blown out in high definition. Skin tones at some points are a tad muted but are still accurate and tell additional stories about Sissy and Brandon. At different points of the film, Brandon’s slightly pink eyelids show reflect a nightmarish fall off the wagon, while years of self-inflicted pain and sorrow can be tracked up and down Sissy’s forearms.
Shame is not an easy recommendation, as there’s no uplifting or redemptive fulfillment but there is brutal honesty with these characters and their unenviable paths. As much as Fassbender and Mulligan are the reasons to watch Shame, McQueen should get his respect as a filmmaker on the rise, a provocative observer of the human condition and storyteller of some of man’s darkest moments. There’s no shame in that.