If you’re going into Steve McQueen’s (Hunger) Shame expecting lots of sexy scenes with Michael Fassbender having sex, you’re in for a disappointment. Yes, there’s a lot of naked Fass Ass and yes, there’s a lot of sex, but no, it’s no sexy. It’s not fun. It’s not even pretty movie sex. At one point, Brandon (Fassbender) is crying during a threesome and not tears of, “Oh man, my dreams are coming true,” but tears of, “I hate myself and I don’t want to be doing this anymore”. Fassbender absolutely makes Shame, much as he did his first collaboration with McQueen, Hunger, and he gives a performance that sets the high watermark for his career very, very high. This is the male lead performance of the year, just barely edging past Peter Mullan in Tyrannosaur for the most powerfully affecting performance from a leading actor. All the good and great bits of Shame are down to Fassbender. Take him away and the movie doesn’t actually have a lot going on.
Which is, um, why it probably won’t land in my top 10. Top 20 for sure, maybe even top 15, but probably not the top 10. The acting in Shame is superb—it’s not just Fassbender that turns in a good performance. Carey Mulligan is excellent as Brandon’s sister Sissy (we’re going to talk about that name in a minute), James Badge Dale (Rubicon, and once upon a time, Lord of the Flies) is very effective as Brandon’s sleazy boss David, and Lucy Walters (nothing I’ve ever heard of) and Nicole Beharie (The Express) shine as two of Brandon’s more memorable women. McQueen knows how to draw performances out of actors and really let them breathe and move through his scenes without a lot of interference. It’s one of his best traits as a filmmaker. When Brandon and Marianne (Beharie) go on a date, the scene is shot as one nearly-unbroken take and it’s lovely since it grounds the viewers in one perspective and gives us the feeling of spying on a real moment.
But let’s get to the heart of the matter, which is that the script, co-written by McQueen and Abi Morgan (The Iron Lady), creates a fabulously complex character in Brandon and cheaps out on everyone else. The next most interesting character is the woman on the subway (Walters) that Brandon flirts with. Everyone else is kind of a cardboard cut-out of a real person. Like, Brandon’s sister is a mess! And she wears funny clothes! And she sings in a bar! And she’s kind of slutty! Sissy never really feels real. Mulligan does a great job of giving her some depth and handling some moments where we sympathize with her, but she’s a walking cliché of a little girl with daddy issues. The most interesting facet of Sissy’s character is her inappropriate relationship with her brother—she doesn’t bother covering up when he walks in on her naked and she climbs into bed with him to sleep at night. Mulligan handles this tantalizing dynamic between the two—Brandon later crawls on top of Sissy when he’s virtually naked—very well and I’m not knocking her performance at all. I just wish she’d been given less of a stereotype to work with. And don’t get me started on the cheapness of naming the sister character “Sissy”. Also, her singing. Oh, we’ll get to her singing.
I think what irked me about Shame was the overall feeling of artificiality. Brandon’s struggle is so visceral and real, yet the world he exists in feels fake. It feels managed. I get that Brandon is man who lives by adhering to a strict routine, but his apartment is that classic sterile ice cube that immediately screams “dysfunctional adult lives here”. And yes, Brandon is a dysfunctional adult, but his apartment doesn’t have to tell us that—his whole life is telling us that. For instance, from the moment we see his stark white bathroom, we know someone is going to kill themselves in there. Stark white bathrooms only exist in movies to serve as a backdrop to lots of bright red suicide blood. Coming from McQueen, who is a visual artist by trade, this feels like relying too heavily on common tropes rather than inventing an organic space for this man to live in. Brandon’s apartment feels like a prop, not a set on which he’s staging the elaborate ruse of his life.
Another scene that bugged me with its inauthenticness was the bar scene when Sissy sings the single worst rendition of New York, New York you’ll ever hear in your life. Upon arriving in New York to crash with her brother, Sissy informs him that she’s actually making money as a singer—pretty good money, she implies. She invites him to see her perform and Brandon goes along with his boss, David. We see Sissy in a couture gown, singing before an upscale Manhattan crowd in a tony bar. The notes to New York, New York begin, she opens her mouth, and out comes…a not extraordinary sound. Mulligan is not a singer. She’s not horrible, but she’s nasally and has a tendency to go flat on sustained notes. That’s a problem as the slowest…arrangement…of…this….song…EVER…has lots of sustained notes.
With a more forgiving arrangement, Mulligan wouldn’t sound half so crap and I felt bad for her, getting hung out to dry like that. Because her singing was lackluster, the scene doesn’t work. If she was going to sing like that, this scene needed to happen at an open mic, or at a dive bar where only Brandon and David showed up to see her. But singing like that—no, I don’t believe anyone is paying her well for that. Neither did anyone else in the audience. Also, this scene kills the momentum of the movie as we linger in close up to watch Mulligan struggle to stay on pitch through the song (she doesn’t).
Before you all start hating me for hating Shame—I DID NOT hate Shame. Shame is a profoundly moving film. It gives you a lot of food for thought about the nature of sex and addiction. It’s painful to watch Brandon blow up his life like he does. There is a lot working for Shame and I would highly recommend this movie. But after seeing it, I couldn’t help but feel like without Fassbender’s stellar performance, the movie probably would have sucked. There’s a little too much reliance on clichés. McQueen kind of cheated out of having to deal with some characterization and plotting issues (such as—whatever happened with Brandon’s job and his computer?). But what’s good about Shame is ultimately so good that the stuff that doesn’t work ends up not being that important. McQueen continues developing into a very brave director who’s willing to go to some places not many other filmmakers will. And Michael Fassbender is rapidly rising up the ranks of the most important actors of his generation.