I saw Shame opening night in Hollywood. The entire theater was sold out, except for one seat in the very front row. I took it, reluctantly, hoping the movie would be solid enough to distract me from my poor seating choice.
I walked out of the movie thinking one thing. That the only way to see this film is in the front row. “Shame” is about confrontation, in all implications of the word. It’s about addiction. And most importantly, it’s about loss.
From the opening shot of our protagonist, played by Michael Fassbender, lying disillusioned, practically anesthetized, on his bed after yet another one-night stand, we can ascertain that this film functions as a slice of life. It is a glimpse into the life of a sex addict that has truly hit rock bottem. We are not shown how he falls into the problem, nor how he recovers from it. Indeed, all that matters to director Steve McQueen is to portray a character in the darkest depths of his obsession.
Our inciting incident is the arrival of Brandon’s sister, Sissy, played by Carey Mulligan, who is as passionate and uninhibited as he is emotionless. They rage at each other constantly. His shameful life no longer private, he demands that she leave. But she has no where to go, and she needs him. The conflict here is between a brother and sister who cannot make sense of the emptiness in their lives. They need to coexist, to heal each other’s wounds, but they are too deprived to know how to confront one another level-headedly.
The close-ups in this film are crucial. Emerson tells us that “the eyes are the windows into the soul.” We need to see Brandon’s eyes because they inform us of his tormented mind. In one scene, he makes eye contact with a girl on a subway. His eyes remain transfixed on hers, the connection so strong that he finds himself following her off the train until she is lost in a sea of people. Rendered completely defenseless to his own addiction, he is driven by an external and artificial force.
Steve McQueen shot this on 35 mm, which I think worked well, and I found the film’s aesthetic qualities to be very telling of the subject matter at hand. There is a muted, de-saturated, and monochromatic tonality to the scenes that take place within Brandon’s sterile Manhattan apartment. Yet, when he is roaming the nocturnal streets looking for his next high, his world becomes more colorful, at times almost psychedelic, to emphasize the sensation he is desperately searching for. The pathos is that he will never find what he is looking for. Like any narcotic, sex has become a form of self-abuse, and only brings him more suffering.
All in all, Fassbender and Mulligan rise to their challenging roles and deliver amazing performances. Shame is a really spectacular, stripped-down piece of cinema and a relief from all the ridiculously inorganic blockbusters that are flooding the box office right now.