I need to get this out of the way. Shame was by far my most anticipated film of the year. I’ve been looking forward to this film the second I found out about it for two reasons: 1. Steve McQueen and 2. Michael Fassbender. These two teamed up on one of the great debuts by a director in recent memory, Hunger. Their collaboration made Hollywood notice Fassbender. With Hunger, McQueen showed the world he was an interesting director with an unique vision. He composed his shots very meticulously, which made Hunger one of the ultimate examples of telling your story through images. I loved Hunger and was dying to see what McQueen would do next. Michael Fassbender quickly became my favorite actor working today. His work in Hunger and Fish Tank blew me away. So did Shame live up to the ridiculous expectations I created?
Yes, but at first I wasn’t sure. Shame was not what I expected. For some reason I thought McQueen’s new film was going to be more accessible than Hunger, but I was wrong. However, this is in no way a bad thing. Actually it’s a pretty great thing. Shame felt incredibly original and truly unique. The way McQueen told his story felt so different. McQueen’s editing choices represent Fassbender’s mundane life controlled by his sexual addiction. By repeating a scene a couple times we immediately understand this is his life. Sleep, Sex, Work, Sex, Sleep, and so on. Some people might consider the beginning boring, but it’s a perfect representation of Fassbender’s life. It is bravura filmmaking by a filmmaker who sees the world differently than most. McQueen simultaneously brings us into the mind of his characters and distances us from them with his different compositions and long takes.
There are a lot of long takes in Shame. Many scenes are played out in a single take. This really allows the scenes to play out in a realistic manner. The dialogue between characters feels real. It doesn’t feel like movie dialogue and I love the film for it. There’s a first date scene that’s absolutely perfect. In one shot we feel the awkwardness of the situation grow before slowly dissipating as the attraction between characters grows. There’s a line in that conversation that is funny but also heartbreaking. The line is so simple, but so powerful because of the way the film prepared you for it. It’s a beautiful scene. There’s also a scene where Fassbender jogs through the streets of New York City that is great from a purely technical perspective, but within the context of the movie it becomes brilliant.
The performances are great. Fassbender’s lives up to the hype. His depiction of sex addiction is daring, raw, and heartbreaking. Carrey Mulligan stands toe to toe with Fassbender. Without her inspiring performance the scenes between brother and sister wouldn’t have worked. Instead, their scenes are filled with tension from their troubled past. As great as the performances were there were moments where I wish the performances were a little more subdued. But that’s a personal preference, and that’s on McQueen. Also, as realistic as the film was there were a few moments that didn’t feel completely genuine to me, but these moments were very rare.
I’m this far into a review of Shame and haven’t talked about the rating or the sex yet. I recently wrote extensively about Shame’s NC-17 here and now that I’ve seen it I truly don’t believe the film deserves a NC-17 rating. Yes, there is sex, but there’s actually less than I expected. McQueen cuts away from the sex a lot in the beginning of the film, and when he does show it’s usually from a distance or in abstract close-ups. The scenes are explicit, but they are in no way glamorize or erotic. The sex in Shame is gritty and cold. I believe young men should see Shame because of the way it critiques hyper-masculine culture. Fassbender sees women as objects in this film, but this perspective is never condoned. Instead, Shame reveals how mundane and meaningless sex can be without intimacy and how hard it can be to change who you are when you meet someone you have feelings for. Real, honest relationships, whether they’re with significant others or family members, are what make us human. Fassbender’s inability to maintain these relationships makes Shame a challenging film, but if you’re willing engage with the beginning of the film you’re rewarded with a heartbreaking final act that literally had me grasping my chest.
Final Grade: A