Movies like to make assumptions. It’s not their fault – as a medium they have been conditioned to have a few certain components that make having a point of view or an answer seem like a necessity. A story about a man who does something seems to be only half a story unless we know why the man took the action he did. The idea that sometimes the reasons or history behind an act or a person are not easily summarized or cataloged is something we accept in life, but not in cinema. So movies have begun a system of creation and reduction, of condensation and assumption. When someone is flawed, we want to know why they are flawed. We want to know the moment that made them the way they are.
Because above all, we expect movies to be a comfort, a reassurance. We expect them to provide us with a safe, easily digestible way to view the complex and messy reality that surrounds us for the 22 hours a day we aren’t in the theater.
You, Shame, are a movie that denies the audience that comfort. You deny the comfort of a pat narrative explanation for your protagonist’s sex addiction. In place of genesis and origin you offer a glimpse of the fallout, a taste of the wreckage left behind in the wake of whatever it was that create this compulsion. Similarly, you offer us no Good Will Hunting-style breakthrough or solution. The tendrils of that trauma and the resulting compulsion are so deeply rooted that “fixing” it would be just as reductive as claiming a sole moment of inception.
This refusal to indulge in the common practice of single-point origin and silver key-correction, in addition to your frank, unflinching depictions of sex and nudity, will create an impenetrable barrier for many people. They will be unable to adapt to your comfortless storytelling. For me, though, you were a stoic, brave, and ultimately challenging breath of fresh air in a market clogged with films that strive so hard for catharsis that they miss the mark of intellectual and artistic honesty.
Your story, on its surface, is a bold cry for controversy. Brandon Sullivan lives a life of quiet remove. He has a sparse yet cultivated apartment in lower Manhattan which allows him the ultimate amount of self-sustaining privacy. He is comfortable walking naked from bedroom to kitchen, watching pornography, and generally indulging in his sexual compulsions with strangers, hookers, and web cam exhibitionists. His job allows him a veneer of social interaction and monetary comfort. There are no inroads to Brandon’s world, and he prefers it that way. Every morning when he walks to the kitchen he presses the play button on his answering machine so he can listen to his sister, Sissy, numbly plead for him to pick up the phone. She is the loan relic of his past and his private world, and while he does not try to drive her away he in no way invites her to continue her overtures.
Regardless, one day Brandon comes home to find Sissy using his shower, and the two have a brief, tense conversation as she stands naked before him. Their dynamic is economically established in this moment, and the unspoken history between them bleeds from the screen in that single, disturbingly unflinching shot. It is this intrusion, this extra weight on Brandon’s facade, that drives the bulk of your narrative, and luckily all the aspects of your production, from your editing, camera work, and music to your acting and writing work perfectly and expertly in service of this tale.
Carey Mulligan gets the most easily lauded role here, as her character is the most extroverted and effusive of the pair. She has a nervous, fragile energy to her, and her eyes always seem glazed with barely restrained tears. During the first night of her stay with Brandon he can hear her on the phone, entreating an unseen former lover to return her affections. She makes outlandish, brokenhearted promises of ultimate loyalty and undying commitment. The next night, following a haunting performance at a swank night club, she has attached herself to a new man, and one can already sense her affections shifting. Meanwhile, she is overly affectionate with Brandon as well, violating his personal space regularly as she yearns to connect with him.
Michael Fassbender has a more subtle, and more thoroughly complicated and damaged character to handle, and with alarming ease and honesty he manages to capture every facet of Brandon’s personality. It is tempting in stories of addiction for the addict’s compulsion to become their sole character trait. What is often lost in this line of thinking, though, is the fact that the character isn’t solely comprised of an addiction, but every aspect of his life does bend to the whim of it. Like flowers trying to break through the choke of a virulent weed, more normative aspects of human character will try to break through, but with only the barest, varying levels of success.
When we first see Brandon he resembles what many assume to be the common, sexually liberated man. He exchanges glances with a woman on the subway, making no attempt to shield his gaze from her notice. He orders a hooker on a lonely night. He picks up a woman from a bar. That we see these things and see no addiction, only conquest, is the root of the alienation that keeps Brandon alone and silent and humiliated. In fact, it isn’t until well into Sissy’s stay, when her behavior begins to wear on Brandon’s conscience, that we see the real danger that his compulsion poses.
He takes a woman he is interested in out to dinner, where they share pleasant conversation and work through the awkward first steps of courtship into an easy going rhythm. At the end of the night they stand facing one another and say their goodbyes, and there is a hesitation before she takes to the subway. She had been expecting a kiss, yet Brandon – so eager to engage with other women – withholds from her the most basic of physical affection. There is no joy, no love, no goodness in physical contact for Brendan. Like an alcoholic who can’t indulge in a simple champagne toast, Brandon cannot allow himself a goodnight kiss.
These realizations, compounded by Sissy’s behavior and the subtle hints of his compulsion that slip out of his control and out into the real world begin to erode the core of his psyche. As with all addicts, calm only comes from believing you have your compulsion under control. Sissy’s presence allows Brandon a chance to see the other side of his coin, the promiscuous yet emotionally dependent analogue to his distant and angry promiscuity. As the complications deepen his rage builds, and in every scene of his attempts to deal with this tide of self loathing the audience can see two things. The first is that Brandon is incapable of exercising the control that he has taken pride in for so long. The second, is that he will not allow himself to take responsibility for his own feelings of disgust. Rather than find the font of his anger and repulsion in himself, he places that antipathy toward Sissy. Fassbender’s performance ably conveys this conflict and confusion, and the manner in which he shifts from embarrassment to rage to depression is fluid and terrifying.
To watch you, Shame, is to be privy to an extreme moment of conflict in the life of a man ill-suited to confronting it. From the beginning we can sense Brandon’s lack of control, and yet we can see in his posture the belief that control exists. Taking this from him leaves him with the path of self-realization, or the path of further denial. There is a kind of horror in your story, as we wait with bated breath to see where Brandon will land.
This emotional core – supported by strong performances from Fassbender and Mulligan – is only further forged by the writing from Abi Morgan and Steve McQueen, who also serves as your director. The level of respect that Morgan and McQueen grant their characters is enviable, belying a complete lack of judgement or repulsion. Rather than create caricatures for addictions to inhabit, they craft flesh and blood individuals. Much as he did with Hunger, McQueen creates a sense of experiential, objective observation. That is not to say this movie attempts to flirt with the documentary format – McQueen is a visual stylist with a keen eye for what aesthetic detail will help to usher us deeper into the narrative and characters of a film. In lesser hands, you would have been a curiosity, a sideshow vehicle for sex addiction. In McQueen’s hands, you become something much more.
One of the chief reasons for this visual success is the prevalence of single-take shots that draw us in to the reality of the situation. In Hunger there was a scene where Bobby Sands speaks with a priest, and their conversation flows naturally from childhood to the coming hunger strike without a single edit. In you, Shame, there are a number of scenes that root us firmly in the world of the characters, and thus anchor us in their lives. McQueen has a tremendous faith in his actors, believing them capable of sustaining an emotional acuity throughout a long, cut-less take, and they reward this faith with complete, affecting performances. From a midnight run, to an awkward date, to a tense sibling encounter, this reliance on edit-free storytelling evinces a clear understanding of the technique as a tool for greater honesty and reality, rather than just empty showmanship.
I was uncertain of what to expect from you when I walked into the theater. Knowing Hunger I was sure I could expect great things, yet somehow you still managed to connect with me, or to move me, in a way that I could not have anticipated. The very depth and breadth of your humanity, the intensity of your commitment to your subject, is a quality to be envied, revered, and hopefully reproduced. There is a subtle pleasure to be taken in watching a film that values character and humanity and reality above the established tropes of narrative tidiness, and I am already looking forward to the day that I can see you again because of it.
Your passionate champion,
Brian J. Roan