My latest screening at the St. Louis International Film Festival was Steve McQueen's second film Shame, which has earned notoriety for receiving an NC-17 rating. It drew a nearly packed house to the gorgeous Tivoli Theatre, which is always good to see. There is a tremendous critical buzz around this film, especially because of McQueen, who's first movie was the acclaimed Hunger back in 2008.
Brandon (Michael Fassbender) is one of those chiseled, perfectly dressed guys who can charm without saying a word. His face looks unnatural and lacks the scars of life that you'd expect to see for a thirty-something working adult. He's a creature of habit, following pretty much the same exact routine every day at his high-rise apartment and his cushy business job. This wouldn't seem like a warning sign up front, but it looks different when you inspect the specifics of his routine. Brandon is a sex addict and spends his days watching or being engaged in various activities. Some are typical encounters with attractive women that you might expect from this type of guy, but others go into a more disturbing territory. Brandon isn't just a young man living a wild life; he's emotionally crippled by his condition and can barely connect to anyone else in life.
Shame presents the repetitive elements of Brandon's life and quickly shows how there's little joy involved in his pursuits. This guy is so wrapped up in the pattern that he doesn't even see how messed up he is beneath the surface. The change happens when his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) arrives and starts living at his apartment. Wreaking havoc with Brandon's carefully measured routine, her arrival turns his lifestyle upside down. Sissy is a force of nature in her own right and outwardly displays her neuroses. It's the opposite of Brandon's cold response, but it's clear that both are struggling with similar demons from the past. She's on the outs with her latest guy and is barely holding it together, but Brandon's so involved in his own issues that he doesn't see it.
While there is a lot of sex in this film, the most striking element is McQueen's direction, which provides some truly stunning long takes. One example is Sissy performing "New York, New York" on stage at a fancy downtown club. McQueen keeps the camera on her face for a while, and Mulligan is more than up to the task. Another complex set-up is the dinner scene between Brandon and Marianne (Nicole Beharie), which involves a lengthy conversation between the couple. It's almost comical to watch other characters, particularly the nervous waiter, keep returning to the same frame. We've been so trained to expect cuts that it almost feels like a mistake when a scene lasts that long. That scene is one of the few "normal" moments for Brandon and actually shows him opening up to another person about his worldview. They might actually have a chance as a couple, but it won't be that easy for Brandon to exit his self-denigrating routine.
Michael Fassbender is stunning in a tricky lead role because we have to stay engaged in the life of a generally unlikable guy. Even when the story lets him down, he never strikes a false chord and makes Brandon's condition believable. The other revelation is Mulligan, who's played more subdued roles in Never Let Me Go and Drive. She brings much-needed energy to her scenes and matches Fassbender at every turn. Both performances deserve Oscar consideration and hopefully won't be penalized for the film's mature subject matter. Beyond Beharie and James Badge Dale's slimy boss, there aren't too many other supporting characters who receive much screen time. This is Fassbender's film to carry, and he's definitely up to the challenge.
Shame is remarkable and includes striking performances, but there are some drawbacks, especially during the final act. Although McQueen purposely avoids bringing a clear resolution to Brandon's story, he does throw the kitchen sink at us near the end. The melodrama starts to overwhelm the understated style that worked so well during the first hour. The ramped-up energy is understandable given Brandon's descent into chaos, but it didn't fully come together by the last frame. The final scene's predictable connection to an early train scene feels like it belongs in a lesser film. It's meant to leave us questioning where his life will go, but the set-up falls short. Considering the story after the credits rolled, the emotional impact starts to lessen. That said, Shame remains an impressive achievement that's worth seeing for the lead performances and McQueen's striking direction. It's not for everyone, especially due to the adult content, but it's one of the more original pictures of the year.