Shame

23 Dec

Title: Shame
Year: 2011
Director: Steve McQueen
Writers: Abi Morgan and Steve McQueen
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, Nicole Beharie, James Badge Dale, Hannah Ware, Elizabeth Masucci
MPAA Rating: NC-17, some explicit sexual content
Runtime: 101 min
IMDb Rating: 8.0
Rotten Tomatoes: 78%
Metacritic: 72

With Shame, I’ve now watched five great films in a row. Five films that I’ve graded either an A-, A or A+. Five films that show why 2011 is really being a terrific year for movies, no matter what some people may say, and why this last part of the year is really awesome as far as how it delivers high-quality entertainment. In the two years that I’ve been reviewing films so far I’ve never watched five great films in a row. And, what’s more, Shame not only is the fifth great film I’ve seen in a row, it’s also the best film I have seen all year, out of the 212 releases from 2011 I have seen to date, this is the very best I’ve seen.

This film is unlike anything I have ever seen, a intensely powerful effort from Steve McQueen, the guy who with his film Hunger in 2008 introduced the world (or at least the few who saw it) to Michael Fassbender. Of course Mr. Fassbender has been around a lot this year, in Jane Eyre (which I gave an A to), A Dangerous Method (an A-) and X-Men: First Class (which I missed upon its release but plan on catching up with soon), and he’s bound to become a true superstar sooner rather than later, but it’s in Shame that the guy really shows why he’s probably one of my five favorite actors working today. This is a performance for the ages; an Oscar should be in order but the Academy won’t go there so I’ll make do with a nomination for him, anything less would be insulting. Not to mention that alongside him, propelling his performance to further greatness with a spectacular awards-worthy performance of her own, is Carey Mulligan, my biggest crush and one of the very best young actresses around. With a cast like this it’s no wonder Shame is the most perfect film of the year, a harrowing look at sex addiction.

I said that the Academy won’t dare to actually give Michael Fassbender the Best Actor Oscar he deserves for this film (someday, though, someday), and that’s because this is an NC-17 film. The kiss of death for most films, a rating that usually means most theaters won’t show this film, that people will look at it with some kind of taboo, thinking something must be wrong for that rating to have been awarded. Thankfully, Fox Searchlight, at the insistence of Mr. McQueen, did nothing to alter their film in order to get an R rating, instead wearing the NC-17 as a badge of honor. That people are saying Shame is a bad film because of how graphic it is in its portrayal of the hell Brandon, the protagonist Mr. Fassbender plays, is going through as he can’t seem to have any sort of grasp whatsoever on his sexuality, is truly something I can’t really understand.

People are dismissing this film, some critics aren’t getting it, the New Yorker critics gave it bad reviews, and I’m sorry to say so but that’s just dumb. I usually don’t care what people say about films, I respect every opinion and there are more than a few critics I read regularly, perhaps with even more interest when my opinion differs from theirs, not to mention that there’s a reason why they’re the ones that are hired to write reviews for a living while I do so just for kicks. But with Shame I actually get a bit defensive, I don’t get why people are dismissing this film, saying that we they don’t really understand Brandon’s plight, saying that the good stuff isn’t shown, and arguing that by that good stuff they mean the internal machinations of Brandon, even though I’m afraid they actually mean there’s no real money shot of good sex on the film. I don’t know why a few critics are having negative reactions to Shame, maybe they haven’t experienced emotions like the ones Brandon experiences and connect to them, and I don’t mean sexually, I mean feeling the shame, that horrible feeling inside in which you feel like you can’t hide from yourself. That’s the real shame.

I know I haven’t said much about the actual film so far, but that’s because I think it’s just as good for me to voice my disbelief about those who can’t get it. People argue that they can’t get why Brandon is the way he is; after all, he’s handsome, has a way with women, is successful and wealthy. And yes, that’s true, but Shame isn’t so much about who Brandon is as it’s about both the guy who he can’t be and the guy who he was and who he has such an incredibly trouble leaving behind. It’s about what happened in his past, the memories that haunt him and that have, through a sexual encounter in his life, left him feeling ashamed of himself, and with a thirst for sex that can never get quenched, a need to be loved. Not the kind of thirst for sex that will give us hot scenes, but scenes that aren’t as pretty to watch, no matter how many gorgeous people are on screen. You have a man and his sister, the character Ms. Mulligan plays, who can only express themselves through sex to try and hide the emptiness of how they can’t connect to anyone, not even to themselves. I think the fact that some people are dismissing Shame as empty and shallow says a lot about them, and I’m damn glad I’m not part of that group.

Anyways, this has been me for the length of a usual review just stating that I don’t understand the negative ones this film has gotten. But that’s just because of how much I love Shame and the need I feel to defend it. Even though that’s something I shouldn’t do, because once you watch Shame you’ll see it says it all by itself and needs no one defending it. This is a beautiful film, a brilliant analysis of the human experience, of the power an addiction can hold over oneself. A film that’s unflinching in its portrayal of sex, and that never once compromises a single frame of its one hundred minutes. Brandon relies on pornography, prostitutes and masturbation in order to achieve this sort of fake intimacy to replace the real one he can’t seem to be able to achieve. You see this man desperately seeking to shed off the emotional damage he was no doubt subjected to in his past, which in turns sees him behaving like any addict would, living for the high risk of his new behavior.

The stuff Michael Fassbender brings to the role is a thing of wonder, a man with many inner demons trying to hide them under his external quest for pure satisfaction. How an actor can be so great at showing a man just spiraling downwards with his addiction is amazing, as you compare the behavior Brandon exhibits with the many women he has no trouble picking up because of his charm and good looks with just how impossible it would be for him to have sex with someone he actually cared about. Like I said, another factor that makes Mr. Fassbender’s performance even greater is the one Carey Mulligan gives, her desperately needy sister, with a really darkly complex connection to her brother which the film hints at but never explains. She’s a damaged soul, and Ms. Mulligan is perfect in showing her emotions at such a raw level, a woman who also wants some sort of false intimacy, not because of a sexual addiction of her own, but because of her need to feel rescued. She’s an impeccable actress, ever since she I saw her on the Blink episode of Doctor Who (my favorite of that show) I was in love with her, and of course it’s with her starmaking role in An Education (my third favorite film of 2009) that she really broke through and has been delivering fully realized performances ever since; she’s another one who’s bound to win an Oscar someday soon.

Shame ultimately is about that hole addictions usually leave you in, empty holes without real satisfaction. And the film doesn’t so much judge Brandon’s addiction as it tries to sympathize with it. And the result is endlessly compelling, a piece of film that’s so incredible, with two performances that are nothing short of perfect and a direction by a guy with a truly spectacular vision who I can’t wait to see more of; his next film, Twelve Years a Slave, due out in 2013, is to be about slavery in the mid-1800’s with Mr. Fassbender reuniting with him again, joined by Brad Pitt and Chiwetel Ejiofor. This McQueen-Fassbender combination may be my favorite modern director-star combo alongside Scorsese-DiCaprio or Refn-Gosling; the actor trusting the director implicitly, delivering a truly courageous performance.

The film won’t be for everyone, that’s true, there are scenes that aren’t all that pleasing to withstand; but the people that like it will really love it. Just please, if you don’t like it, let it be for real reasons and not the dumb ones I’ve spent some time discussing above, this is a film that really deserves to be seen, one that never once compromises and goes for crowd-pleasing moments, and one that contains some of the best minutes of cinema I’ve seen in recent memory, stuff that’s just impeccably done. This is a masterpiece, make no mistake about it, the best amongst the very best in a really great year for film.

Grade: A+

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One Response to “Shame”

  1. CMrok93 December 24, 2011 at 6:09 am #

    It’s a very interesting perspective on addiction, I wish more film makers could muster up the courage to make sexually charged, important movies like this, and it also happens to have a fantastic little score to back up McQueen’s skills with the camera. Fassbender is amazing in this role and really nails just about every scene he has on screen. Good review. Give mine a look at when you can.

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