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Shame (A Movie Review)

Updated: Jun 9, 2023

SHAME (2011)

Starring Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale, Nicole Beharie, Hannah Ware, Amy Gargreaves, Elizabeth Masucci, Lucy Walters, Mari-Ange Ramirez, Alex Manette, Rachel Farrar, Loren Omer, Lauren Tyrrell and Marta Milans.

Screenplay by Steve McQueen and Abi Morgan.

Directed by Steve McQueen.

Distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures. 117 minutes. Rated NC-17.

Sometimes it is a little hard to take sex addiction seriously as a condition. Too much sex? Cry me a river…

However, it is a real condition with real circumstances. This brave film takes a look at the soul-crushing depth of the addiction.

Shame is quite possibly the least sexy film about sex ever. Explicit, yes. Sexy, not at all. Yet that is completely appropriate to the lead character. Sex is not an enjoyable diversion to Brandon Sullivan. In fact, if anything, it leaves him feeling empty and guilty. However, he needs it, almost like a vampire needs blood.

Early in the film, we see Brandon sitting in a New York subway car. He looks around lazily until his eyes lock on a pretty woman across the car. He stares at her intently. She notices him looking at her and is flattered. She smiles at him. He continues the same steely gaze. She starts to flirt just a bit, stretching out her legs, looking at him coyly, teasing him with her eyes. He barely reacts, concentrating on her raptly.

He is the hunter and she is his prey.

Suddenly, his intensity spooks her. She bolts the train at the next stop. He follows right behind her. Eventually, she loses him in the crowd. Only then does Brandon let his guard down, a look of confusion and disappointment troubling his handsome face.

And Brandon is handsome, as played by Michael Fassbender in an incredibly brave performance in which he is often stripped naked physically and emotionally. He is also smart, charming and rich. Sex should not be a problem for the man, however he frequents prostitutes, porn sites and meaningless pickups.

Sex is not about companionship or love for Brandon, it is a dirty urge that this control freak can't control.

He hangs out with his boss – who is every bit as big a hound as him (though the boss does not seem to share Brandon's porn addiction). The boss is even worse, really, because he is a married family man who doesn't think twice about hitting on women anywhere he is.

Eventually he is visited by his estranged sister Sissy (played by a similarly brave Carey Mulligan). Sissy is almost the polar opposite of Brandon. She is overly emotional when he is borderline cold. She is overly romantic when he is cynical. She is demonstrative while he is reserved.

But the one thing they do have in common is sexual promiscuity. She is just as trapped by her urges as he is, though they look at sex in very different ways. She uses sex to get a sense of belonging and warmth; he uses sex to stop the numbness of his life. However, eventually it always disappoints both of them.

This kind of subject hardly seems like it would be in the wheelhouse of British director Steve McQueen, whose last film was Fassbender's breakout Hunger. However, in a certain searingly claustrophobic and cut off way, it Shame is similar, just changing the focus from the political to the carnal.

The movie slips a tiny bit into melodrama at the climax, but it is still a fascinating look at modern sexual mores and it boasts two of the most intriguing characters of any film this year.

Dave Strohler

Copyright ©2012 All rights reserved. Posted: April 17, 2012.


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