The “Shame” of Addiction
by Justin Senkbile
Director Steve McQueen's “Shame” is a film with a focus on sex, but it plays out with icy stares and teeming silences instead of rapturous moans and cleverly-lit thrusts. Because, although we see quite a lot of it, this movie isn't about sex at all. And though its central character is undoubtedly an addict, this really isn't about addiction either. It actually took me most of the 101 minute running time to realize what should be obvious: “Shame” is about shame.
Michael Fassbender, who also starred in McQueen's first film, 2008's “Hunger”, plays Brandon, a young-ish professional living a robotic existence in Manhattan. As an archetypal “modern man”, it's only appropriate that he should work in a sterile office and live in a mostly bare, white-walled apartment, as he does. But Brandon is a slave to the pleasures (or, in his case, curses) of the flesh. He hires high-class prostitutes, picks up girls in bars and gorges on any kind of pornography he can get his hands on. But he's never satisfied, and succeeds only in becoming even more distanced, more confused and more self-loathing.
At the beginning, Brandon is set up so perfectly as a creature defined only by his addiction that it's a little jarring to learn he's a person too, which we discover while observing him out with co-workers or simply holding the door open for a neighbor. It's equally disorienting to realize he has a sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), who has barged back into his life, in need of a couch to sleep on. Her presence is a burden in his eyes (he even tells her as much), but she's serving a twisted purpose that he may or may not realize: he gets a chance to beat up on someone besides himself for a while.
Detractors of the film point to a few particular elements in their criticism, one of them being the notion that McQueen, with all the clean, empty rooms and ostensibly blank silences that populate the film, is using ambiguity as an end in and of itself; in short, that he has nothing to say, and worse yet, not even a compelling style. It's an appealingly succinct idea, but to accept it only means that you aren't paying attention to Fassbender and, to a lesser extent, Mulligan.
Because it's true: nothing McQueen has done here has any value without his actor. But creating that very situation is a feat only a remarkably skilled director would be able to pull off. At the risk of being reductive with such a powerful performance, I'll put it this way: Fassbender fills in McQueen's gaps. It's his eyes, his clenching jaws and most of all his simple presence that are communicating everything worth receiving here. In one excruciatingly visceral scene, where Sissy sadly sings “New York, New York” in an upscale bar and Brandon watches, it's the faces alone providing volumes of history, feeling and conflict.
In the wake of “Shame”, it's clear how rare such pictures actually are today. We see a lot of money movies that have built themselves around a star, but this is a real movie that builds itself around an actor. Since most of us are hard-wired us to approach challenging films with the director's intentions in mind, a movie like this is particularly tough to grapple with, hence the claims that McQueen is a director with no style and no substance.
All that being said, there is a bone to pick. “Shame” really could've benefitted by showing Brandon's carnal advances getting turned down at least once. In this Manhattan, it seems every female body we encounter is immediately melted under the guy's icy, objectifying stare. Obviously Fassbender is a flawlessly handsome dude, but such an oversight not only deprives us of an even fuller picture of the character (imagine how Fassbender would play such a scene!) but indicate an unsettling concept of women, one that might fall in line with Brandon's urges, but is not likely true to his actual perceptions.
I know we're only a few weeks in, but I don't think we'll see a sadder movie this year. This is certainly among the saddest I've seen. But “Shame” isn't a cruel film, its an illuminating one. Dark, rough and challenging, yes, but also immensely rewarding.
Shame” is playing at the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center, 13th and R streets, through February 2nd