“For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him? Even so the thoughts of God no one knows except the Spirit of God.” – 1 Corinthians 2:11

A successful, young, white collar professional in his 30s grapples with his sexual vices as he makes a living in New York City. His dalliances inform the narrative at first. Then one day his younger sister shows up at his Manhattan apartment. She ends up moving in with him and the addition will severely affect his life. Shame is a drama co-written and directed by Steve McQueen. I’m sorry. With all apologies to this talented British filmmaker, I will forever associate that name with the popular American movie actor who passed on in 1980. “The King of Cool” is simply too iconic. I know. It’s my issue. But I digress.

Shame is not a pretty film. Make no mistake it’s beautifully filmed. The city looks stunning. Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt photographs New York and its nightlife with an eye for detail and subtlety. We follow Brandon from his unspecified high powered job out into the night where he meets women. Shame is a searing drama, but not in the conventional sense. It’s one of those candid exposés where we’re eavesdropping on the intimate details. The feeling is seductive as well as a turn off. It reveals a man, literally and figuratively, to the bare essence of a personality. The director follows a judicious minimalism revealing his proclivities one layer at a time gradually. We learn about Brandon through the mundanity of his existence. He wakes, up, brushes his teeth, listens to phone messages, goes to work. His interactions with other people clarify his character and the portrait in quite engaging in that it takes its time. From all outward appearances he appears to be the model of success. It’s only after we start to peel back the layers of his wretched existence, we realize how messed up he is. It’s the explanation behind opening the review with that quote. My choice, not the filmmaker’s.

What makes Shame so absorbing are the performances. Michael Fassbender is fascinating. He is handsome, articulate, has a good career, is socially adept. But as the chronicle slowly divulges who he is, we see a much more unsettling picture. His interactions with others form a profile of the man. He hangs out with a male co-worker, a woman he meets in a bar. Then his sister comes to visit. Her arrival sets the most devastating event of the story in motion. Played by Carey Mulligan, Sissy is just as miserable as he is. But all of his various contacts are important. In one of the film’s best scenes, he goes out on a date with Marianne, a new assistant at work. She is attractive and bewitching. To him, she could be the picture of a normal girlfriend – a woman he could actually love and see as much more than merely another indulgence in his debilitating behavior. In one long extended take, their dinner conversation speaks volumes. It’s telling that actress Nicole Beharie is able to convey so much with her words. How their relationship develops speaks even more with their subsequent actions. It’s an intriguing development, one of many.

The production is deliberately paced, at times almost lethargic. Case in point: his sister is a singer in a bar and her performance of the Frank Sinatra staple “New York, New York” has got to be one of the slowest interpretations of any song I have ever heard. That’s an admittedly touching scene, but at times the listless pace is a bit off putting. Furthermore, I didn’t see why we should even care about this miscreant at first. In an earthly sense, an addiction is detrimental only if it harms you physically or has an adverse transformation on your life. For example, if you neglect your job to the point where it negates your ability to make a living, then you have a problem. But he was able to function as a productive member of society and still indulge in the addiction. There was a moral quandary but not a worldly one. But the account goes much deeper. Michael Fassbinder’s Brandon is a disturbing fellow………because he disturbs himself. He struggles with his own weaknesses and deep down he wants to stop. That’s what holds our attention – his desire to change. Brandon is a tragic figure. Shame is compelling – the audience riveted to the screen, no matter how hard we try to look away.

9 Responses to “Shame”

  1. Great review, Mark! I can’t wait to watch Shame. It’s been showered with praise, especially Michael Fassbender. I have no idea when it will open over here, though.

    * There’s a little typo in your review. You wrote “But he was able to function as a productive member of scoter”, I think you meant society, right?


  2. I saw that, but not before I published. Thanks.


  3. Despite your well written, positive review, I’ll actually try to avoid this film. You’ve probably heard me say that “hard R” is already too much for me to bear. An NC-17 film, therefore, takes it to a whole new level with graphic content that I particularly feel does not belong on the screen. If this wins one of the more significant Oscars……I’ll think about it.


    • I respect that. I wouldn’t recommend this film to everyone. I will say that the MPAA is much quicker to give an NC-17 for sexual content than for graphic violence or gore. Movies like Saw or Hostel have content that is 10x more disturbing than anything I saw in Shame. True, this is not a film for everyone. Shame deals with sexuality, but not in a titillating way.


    • Exactly my point. Those horror films should have been rated NC-17.


  4. It’s so hard to comment on a movie with such a graphic topic. Putting all the NC-17 stuff aside, this was a very good movie. I felt all the different emotional struggles Michael Fassbenders’ character went through. He was great. Could be a nominated performance.


  5. moviewriting Says:

    Great review Mark, I agree entirely. Fassbender is certainly something else. I didn’t find the NYNY song scene touching at all, unfortunately it just went over my head and seemed a little pointless


    • Take a fast song and make it slow – it’s a simple way to be creative. Sometimes it works, but here I think I checked my watch twice while she sang. It created a very somber mood, though so that was kind of poignant I guess.


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