Composed, seething, and soul-churning, Shame is a Dante-esque odyssey through a treacherous nightworld and a raw, unsparing look at the downside of humanity. Resembling an amusement park ride, it’s a visual and sonic symphony, and a dreary visit to a house of horrors that ends where it begins. Hypnotic yet abjectly miserable, it will hover in your psyche for a long time.
Writer-director Steve McQueen (2008 Cannes Camera d’Or-winner for Hunger) is drawn to exploring the impact of the suppression, denial, or indulgence of our most basic human needs. In Shame, McQueen exploits an exquisite tension between a brother looking to disconnect and a sister longing for connection. Brandon (Michael Fassbender, Fish Tank, Inglourious Basterds) is a successful, handsome, mid-30s advertising executive living in New York City. He receives an unexpected visitor, the needy Sissy (Carey Mulligan, An Education), who interferes in his personal life and sends him into a crippling nosedive.
Shame appears to be a chilly depiction of a sad, wounded monster. It’s easy to become interested in the tragedy, but harder to become invested in the characters: they’re like specimens in a jar. Nevertheless, Shame offers such an unflinching, realistic view of addiction, and the stakes are so high, that the actors deliver beyond comprehension. Together, McQueen and Fassbender provide an elegant, art-tinged character study, a snapshot of a tumultuous life, shot without judgment or censure – the fascinating story of a man who has everything and nothing at once.
Shame has a lolling pace and splendid visual clarity, though much of the film, like Hunger, borders on grandiloquence. Structurally, it’s close to perfect. Even if the welts are caused more from blunt force trauma than earnest distress, the vacuous vignettes about emptiness stun with terrific power, and occasionally, they flicker and burn with consuming fire: a sexual showdown on the subway is unforgettable in its fidelity to the inexorable power of flirtation and reciprocal attraction.
What is so often relegated to sophomoric titillation is redefined and portrayed as a numbing erasure of sentiment. Shame robs Brandon of erotic intimacy, replaces contrition with self-reproach, and reduces his journey to a brutish satisfying of carnal desires. It’s a psychologically claustrophobic dismantling of its sibling duo, leaving us nowhere to hide. A scorching walk on the wild side, a graphic portrait of a spiraling addict, and an uncompromising study of a man haunted by sexual dependency, Shame may leave you in need of a cold shower, but it’s a game effort with strong ambitions and provocative themes.
Neither glamourous nor arousing, but both harrowing and heartrending, Shame feels akin to going into battle, and it is impossible to emerge unscathed. It’s a grim and arty drama about compulsion and weakness – the utter despair that sex can’t conceal – that earns its NC-17 rating; an affecting picture that leaves the viewer wrung out, seduced, and abandoned.