What Is He Ashamed Of? Not walking around naked, I tell you what.
Rating Using Random Objects Relevant To The Film: Four JFKs out of five.
Brief Plot Synopsis: NYC sex addict's life of meaningless fornicating is interrupted by the arrival of his possibly unhinged sister.
Better Tagline: "You can't spell 'Fassbender' without 'ass.'"
Rated NC-17? What For? Sex. Masturbation. Male full frontal. There's female full frontal as well, but that only rates an 'R' because the sight of a man's schlong is widely regarded as sufficient to send impressionable young men screaming off the precipice into homogayuality. Did I mention sex?
Not So Brief Plot Synopsis: Brandon's (Michael Fassbender) days are marked by an endless series of meaningless sexual encounters and Internet porn surfing (he also has a job) punctuated by calls from what one assumes is a rather unstable ex-girlfriend. He's no mere Lothario, but an honest to Pan sex addict. He manages to keep his life under control, just barely, until sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) moves in and forces him to make some...uncomfortable adjustments.
"Critical" Analysis: Sex addiction is a big deal. I guess. Oprah talked about it, so I suppose that makes it a legitimate problem. My issue has always been the ones who come forward with their addictions are people like Michael Douglas and David Duchovny, whose biggest addiction-related dilemma was probably scheduling their trysts.
Certainly the life of the hypersexed is easier when you look like Michael freaking Fassbender and not, say, Jonah Hill. But it's to Fassbender's credit that he convinces us how miserable Brandon's life is. It would've been easy for writer/director Steve McQueen (who previously worked with Fassbender on Hunger) to amp up the titillation factor, but any envy we feel for Brandon fades as we realize how powerless he is to stop. The final 20 minutes of Shame are an excruciating journey through one man's dependency.
McQueen's New York City is a cold metropolis, where each assignation merely fills the void until the next one. In that respect, it's a perfect location for someone like Brandon: crowded subways to facilitate chance encounters, a booming sex worker industry, the anonymity of millions. To him, the city is both wonderful and terrifying, and McQueen's use of long, stationary single-camera shots and filters enhances the ambient sense of tension and Brandon's isolation.
Mulligan's character is less compelling. At first we can't figure out if Sissy cramps his style merely because the sanctity of his bachelor pad has been breached, or because the two have a distinctly uncomfortable level of familiarity with each other. Sissy is an addict at the opposite end of the spectrum, developing unhealthy romantic attachments with what would otherwise be one-night stands. Her neediness ends up jeopardizing Brandon's job and, eventually, her own life.
Because he's not ignorant of his problem, Brandon makes an attempt to straighten up, shitcanning his formidable pornography collection and even disposing of his laptop. Predictably, the effort fails, and his ensuing descent is as explicit as anything you'll see short of actual hardcore pornography. But again, there's no titillation here. Brandon's face as he's brought to climax is a mask of resignation and revulsion. Fueled by pure desperation, Fassbender makes Brandon's self-loathing something concrete. It's a powerfully brutal performance.
In the end, no answers or solutions are apparent. Will Brandon ever rise above his addiction? Or are we just witnesses at the beginning of this man's universe collapsing into itself? I skew towards the latter, because I'm a realist, and because -- as McQueen and Fassbender make clear -- few of us ever manage to conquer our demons.
Shame is in Houston theaters December 16. I wouldn't recommend a family holiday excursion to check it out.
Keep the Houston Press Free... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Houston with no paywalls.