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Shame cuts deep

Shane Steinberg | Wednesday, January 25, 2012


“Shame” is in a rare class of films. It’s that once-in-a-blue-moon movie that’s undeniably great (dare I say, almost a masterpiece), yet too difficult to watch. It leaves you on the edge of your seat, ready to prematurely walk out of the theater. 

It’s a feat really, turning a man’s desperate pursuit of sex into a cringe-worthy two hours. It so finely walks the extremely thin line between being sick and pornographic, and graphic enough that you feel the need to turn away but can’t bear to. And therein lies the genius of Steve McQueen’s sophomore effort: the fact that the visceral power is in what you don’t see. It would have been so easy for McQueen, who embraced the film’s NC-17 rating, to make it less about a sex addict’s mental and emotional unraveling and more about his sexcapades. 

Michael Fassbender portrays the sex addict. And if his Ryan Gosling-like presence all over the silver screen in 2011 films wasn’t enough to make America notice, then his performance in this film should be.

Fassbender plays Brandon Sullivan, a Wall Street playboy who lives a solitary existence if not for his frequent encounters with prostitutes, one-night stands and nightly adult video chats. His ailment is all too human at first glance, and maybe even praiseworthy by society’s tendency to congratulate and emulate playboys. 

Beneath the surface, however, he’s broken and utterly sick. For him, sex isn’t a matter of pleasure, or even remotely a matter of emotional connectedness. Rather, it is a life-blood without which he’d have nothing to live for, except for maybe the one scrap of family he has left his troubled younger sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan).

The film opens with Brandon staring emptily at the ceiling ahead, his bed sheets half-draped across his naked body. As the film’s title vanishes from the screen, Brandon gets up and moves about almost like a zombified version of a man. From that moment on, his sexual encounters (especially one that doesn’t even directly involve him) increasingly operate in agonizing fashion, taking momentary breaks from time to time to allow the audience to come up for air.

Fassbender, despite a career-defining turn, won’t win any of the high-profile awards for his performance. McQueen, who in his second film once again shows he has that rare Lars von Trier-like ability to get his actors to give him everything, won’t win either. The film shares the same fate simply because, to put it bluntly, no nationally broadcast awards show can get away with endorsing a movie even half as controversial as this one.

Nevertheless, “Shame” is one of this year’s best films. It tears you apart on the inside and cuts deep deeper in some than in others and whether you love or hate it, “Shame” is more of an experience than a film. A challenging experience to sit through, but an experience nonetheless.