MOVIE RATING: 4.5 stars (A-)
There are two types of movies. Movies that give us an escape from reality. And movies that give us reality (or at least as close as a movie can). As moviegoers, we either choose to look at ourselves in the mirror that the movie provides us with, or we choose to look away. Some of us do both. Some only do one or the other. There are no qualms about it in my mind: Shame (2011) is a movie that puts a big f**king mirror up in front of our face. This is a serious film. And it’s a seriously outstanding one.
Shame is rated NC-17, which is such perfect irony for the title. It’s the first film in a long time to take that label, and even turn it into a badge of honor. Michael Fassbender is absolutely stunning in his portrayal of Brandon, a middle-aged modern male “sex addict”. I put quotes around sex addict because the movie doesn’t actually label Brandon as one. But most reviews and summaries about the film do. I can see both sides of the argument. While I personally think his behavior does probably veer towards addiction because of his obsession with it on so many levels, the behavior itself may be more mainstream and “normal” than many of us would like to think or talk about openly. Sex addiction is a bit of a controversial diagnosis. Director Steve McQueen has really captured an incredible and poignant slice of the male psyche and modern male life that few films look at, let alone dwell on in such intricate detail.
Without delay, or modesty, Shame delves into the heart of its story right from the opening frame, presenting its full frontal male nudity right away, instead of shamefully hiding it or leading up to it. Shame is not pornography. But some people might view its “European” frankness and equality towards its actors bodies as crossing the line…hence the NC-17 rating. I don’t. The subject matter (“sex addiction” on the surface) and the way the film is holding up the mirror for us to view ourselves in our current times, suggests a bold approach like McQueen has taken. With graphic pornography available at the click of a mouse on our computer (I could have a link for you to click right here), or the touch of our finger on our iPad or iPhone, shouldn’t a movie about sex addiction grab our attention away from that material to really start a serious conversation about it?
We’re peering into a few days in the life of Brandon, his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan), and the people in their lives, including Brandon’s boss at work, David (James Badge Dale). Brandon has a daily routine, like we all do. And sex, in all its various thoughts, actions, and forms is a part of that. Like it is for most of us. But Brandon is obsessed with getting physical pleasure more than usual. And yet we’ve all probably had stages in our lives where our own personal obsession with sex has been closer to his than we may like to admit. I think the banal way some of the simulated sex in this movie is shown is a great reflection of the banality that sex and masturbation can take on in mid-life. As I’ve said to friends, sex (solo or otherwise), to some degree, becomes a bit like brushing one’s teeth at some point in a guys life. It’s just something we do each day to keep ourselves healthy and sane. We’re wired biologically to seek that release regularly. Some might argue it’s our “primitive” nature and that with maturity and spirituality, we get past it. I don’t think there’s anything to get “past”. We are human. We are sexual beings…from birth until death. Denial, or repression, is what I would label getting past it.
While on the surface, Shame appears to be about sex addiction to most people, it’s really about the emptiness and meaningless of modern life that many of us feel day to day. Sex and sex addiction are simply the “shameful” symptomatic behaviors of those lack-of-purpose feelings that Brandon and Sissy have. We’re all scrambling about in a hurry to get somewhere…anywhere. Yet we have no idea where. And in fact, we are oblivious to the reality that there is nowhere to get. Brandon and Sissy both feel lost and without purpose in life. That is the real content of this film that grabbed me emotionally, because I’ve been in that same place at stages…and may again. Shame was an emotional roller coaster. It started emotional, went in to a flatter, more emotionless period, and ended on a very strong emotional beat. I won’t give away any plot points from the third act, but McQueen really grabbed every aspect of me by the end. And I’m still dizzy in thought about all the meaning in the film and it’s relation to my own life.
There is no doubt in my mind that Fassbender’s performance in Shame deserves the Best Actor award for 2011. He has my vote hands down. There is no Shame without Fassbender. His willingness as an actor, an artist, and a man, to put every ounce of his humanity on the line in this role, both physically and emotionally, is what Oscars were made for. And yet, I doubt he’ll win for this role. The fact that he just got nominated this week for a Golden Globe as Best Actor in a Drama at least bodes well for him getting an Oscar nomination. But it’ll blow me away if a movie as edgy and out there as Shame brings him enough mainstream votes to give him the trophy he so richly deserves. This really is one of the best performances I’ve seen in years. It reminds me of the greatness that Colin Firth brought to A Single Man (2009).
The artistic craftsmanship that McQueen and his production team brought to Shame is simply mind-blowing. Every possible aspect of cinema that makes a movie great in my opinion is present in Shame. The production design, cinematography, sound (or lack thereof), music, editing, acting, writing, and direction are as good as they get. The visuals of the film will probably wander through my mind for days, weeks, months, and years. Some of the camera shots are so simple, and yet so breathtaking. The lighting (or lack thereof a times) really worked for me. The thing that small indie films like Shame have that big productions often times don’t have, is simplicity. I’m a strong believer in the power of simple design and solutions. And when money is thrown at a film, it often times simply goes into something more complex…because it can. More light, more sound, more visual effects. Less money seems to bring simple solutions to filmmaking problems more often than not. And at least in the case of Shame, it pays off.
Having seen Shame via digital projection at the theater, it looked great. It had the feel of 35mm, which it was shot on, which lent the film a bit of grit and rawness. I can’t say enough good things about Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt’s work. The long takes, of which there are 2 or 3 in Shame, are flawless and engaging. One thing I noticed repeatedly that I really loved in the frame compositions was the use of the edges of the frame. So often, we see great subject matter fully within the frame, but I noticed how often McQueen, Bobbitt, and the rest of the crew placed great subject matter at the edges of the frame, sometimes revealing only part of it…just barely giving us enough. There are so many incredible shots to see throughout Shame, showing a fresh side of New York and using its inherent varied lighting to maximum effect. I’m really looking forward to owning Shame on blu-ray so I can study it over and over again.
The film editing by Joe Walker really pairs well with the cinematography and script. There were a few scenes where I was thrown off by how long the scene goes on, making me pay attention to the editing more than normal. But I’m not sure I would say they were a problem, just more of a surprise. I’ll have to see how the editing holds up on repeat viewings, but instinctually it felt right to me. The emotional build-up in the 1st and 3rd acts are simply works of art that definitely got me with the music.
Shame’s sound is sparse at times, favoring silence and no music, which I really loved. And the repetitive pieces of score that music composer Harry Escott wrote are spectacular in their tone and rhythm. At first, I thought they were from Hans Zimmer’s scores to The Thin Red Line (1998) and Inception (2010), but while reminiscent of Zimmer’s work, they have there own uniqueness. I’ve purchased the two key score tracks (“Brandon” and “Unravelling”) by Escott from Shame’s soundtrack and listened to them multiple times. Each is a brilliant piece of work that will be in regular rotation for me the rest of my life. I can’t imagine a better pairing of music to Shame’s visuals than Escott has created. I certainly hope the Academy appreciates this brilliance as well come Oscar time.
Every detail of the production design for Shame has been thought out. The locations and sets were perfect for this story about a modern urban man in New York. Brandon’s costumes were perfect. Production Designer Judy Becker had a fantastic team of people that worked with her to give Shame it’s look and feel.
At the foundation of Shame is insightful, realistic, and engaging writing. The screenplay, written by director Steve McQueen and Abi Morgan, is so clearly where the brilliance of this movie originated. There’s a perfect balance of giving the audience enough to invest themselves in the characters and story, but not too much. We’re left with many questions, yet I don’t feel the need to have them answered. McQueen and Morgan tapped into something universally human and especially male. They didn’t veer away from the hard truths, but delved into them to see what we all could find for ourselves.
Shame is definitely one of my top films of 2011. If you have an open mind, and open heart, and a willingness to look in the mirror and see something both disturbing and magnificent, then Shame is a film you’ll want to seek out and see.
Check out details on this film and its Blu-ray presentation at Blu-ray.com.