After capturing the gruesome implications of the 1981 IRA hunger strike in his breakout 2008 film Hunger, Steve R. McQueen shifted gears with 2011’s Shame. Like Hunger, Shame stars the now seemingly omnipresent Michael Fassbender in a performance so intense that it threatens to blow everything else off the screen. The film concerns itself with the story of Brandon, a young, physically attractive working professional living in New York City. However, Brandon’s existence is brutally compromised by his sexual addiction. These problems are exacerbated by the sudden appearance of Brandon’s highly volatile and emotionally fragile younger sister, Sissy, who is strongly embodied by the characteristically wonderful Carey Mulligan.
Shame is a beautifully shot movie about some very ugly subject matter. It also stands as further evidence of McQueen’s mastery of the visual image. Shame is also a strong testament to the power of suggestion, with McQueen wisely avoiding large amounts of expository dialogue, and relentlessly focusing on the simple day-to-day nature of Fassbender’s Brandon.
There is an enthralling sense of unpredictability to Fassbender’s work in Shame. Similar to their previous film, McQueen and his creative team seem intent on utilizing Fassbender’s physicality to its fullest extent, although here it is the actor’s face instead of his body that serves as the most shocking indicator of the character’s psychological state. Over the course of Shame Brandon disintegrates even further away from what one would consider to be an emotionally healthy individual. Fassbender slowly builds his performance until we are left with a disturbing and searing portrait of man totally consumed by an impulsive drive to feel something. This culminates in one of the film’s final and most disturbing sex scenes, where again the director’s focus on Fassbender’s face (which contorts and shifts around in a mixture of pleasure, pain, anger and sadness) gives us a window to the character’s soul.
Equally engaging is Mulligan’s characterization of Brandon’s younger and perhaps more disturbed younger sister Sissy. From the moment of her character’s introduction to the film’s final frames, Mulligan’s work is so strongly transformative and so lacking in vanity that it is difficult to actually recognize the real identity of the actress. She is Fassbender’s equal but also one of the film’s few windows into what is driving the behaviors of these two siblings.
One of the central criticisms leveled at Shame is that Brandon’s inclination for superficial sex is not something that should be really harped on as a problem. However, Shame is not really so much about Brandon’s sexual appetites as it is about the void at the heart of this character’s experience. It is this idea that McQueen’s aesthetic choices convey beautifully. With a perpetually grey sky and long nighttime camera movements, Manhattan’s endless skyscrapers are transformed into unassuming and lonely husks, dimly lit by street-level commercial space. By using such striking visual imagery, McQueen’s film channels the same thematic power that also drove Mary Harron’s 2000 film, American Psycho. That film also explored the existential void and a character’s incapability to create a palpable human connection or tap into a normal spectrum of human emotion. McQueen even replicates certain visual motifs from that film, such as repeated use of a stagnant camera focusing on an empty room, with characters moving in and out of the frame.
McQueen’s skill with the film’s visuals is highly apparent throughout the entirety of Shame. He clearly favors visual suggestion over dialogue. This is both refreshing and frustrating. McQueen graciously omits the exact psychological reasons for why Brandon and Sissy fail to adhere to mainstream social perspectives regarding sex and fraternal boundaries. Still, the level of verbal omission is sometimes so severe and the story so stripped-down to basic behavioral observation that the audience has very little at their disposal to understand these characters.
Certainly it would be difficult for anyone to make the case that Shame is enjoyable to watch. Yet, it is a powerful film that deserves to be seen. It has a great deal to convey about a specific feeling, a level of disconnect that perhaps many people experience even in the most intimate of interactions. This seems to be the main idea that Shame is intent on exploring. McQueen, with his potent visual style and lyrical use of music (especially in the two subway sequences which bookend the film), delivers this theme with the assistance of the fantastic Fassbender and Mulligan. It’s depiction of two damaged characters existing in a New York City is highly memorable. This New York is strongly removed from the glamorous utopia that some would like to make it out to be. In the world of Shame the streets of the Big Apple are not a source of endless cultural and culinary delights. Instead they are defined by their blankness and uniformity. The apartment of the working professional is not a plush or warm urban oasis, but simply a collection of empty rooms.