I can think of several words to describe director Steve McQueen’s powerful film, Shame, but as a whole, it was a haunting piece of work that stayed with me long after the credits rolled. Make no mistake, this complicated character study is not for everyone; the film is extremely explicit in its portrayal of sexual addiction and builds slowly towards its powerful finale. Like an onion, the ambiguous script asks the audience to peel away the film’s narrative layers in order to comprehend its deeper meaning.
The film follows Brendan (played by Michael Fassbender), a successful and handsome 30-something New Yorker who seemingly has it all. Brendan appears to have a well paying job, owns a spacious Manhattan condo with a stunning view, and attracts a slew of beautiful women with ease. Yet, something is amiss; Brendan spends his days fuelling his intense sex addiction and is incapable of forming personal relationships with anyone, including his own little sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan). Every aspect of this film represents the protagonist’s detached state, from its cold muted colour palette to the point-of-view shots where we experience the world through Brendan’s male gaze.
On the surface, it would appear that the film is simply about sex addiction since the script never fully reveals the cause behind Brendan’s obsession. However, it’s implied that both Sissy and Brendan are equally flawed and deeply affected by their past.
We’re not bad people, we just come from a bad place.
Sissy says to Brendan during a heated argument. Brendan and Sissy bear a shame that looms large over their lives and deal with their scars in different ways, both of which are equally heartbreaking.
Shame has garnered mainly positive reviews from critics, especially because of Michael Fassbender’s courageous and brilliant performance (he was rightfully nominated for a Best Actor Golden Globe and certainly deserves to win). Yet, one of this year’s very best films has only managed to conjure up a 78% approval rating from popular review website and forum, Rotten Tomatoes and has largely gone unnoticed by moviegoers (many people I’ve talked to have never even heard of it). This is possibly due to in part to the film’s explicit subject matter and its harsh NC-17 rating. Nevertheless, Shame deserves to be seen and talked about. This is without a doubt one the year’s best films.