Even taking into account its title, which could be considered a giveaway, this rare NC-17-rated major studio release turns out to be unexpectedly puritanical at heart. It’s a dirty story of a dirty man, but conservatives will be comforted to know that the guy at least has the decency to be joyless, guilt-ridden and thoroughly disgusted with himself.
Sex-obsessed stud Brandon (Michael Fassbender) is so perpetually horny he can’t even make it through a day at the office without taking restroom breaks to get in touch with himself. Handsome and charming enough that he can bed women effortlessly, he nevertheless feels the need to patronize hookers and engage in smutty live-cam chats. He also is a dead-eyed devotee of internet, video and printed porn.
Brandon doesn’t like it much when his screwed-up sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) wants to crash at his American Psycho-sterile Manhattan condo, but what’s a brother to do? Sissy’s casual nudity and clingy neediness hint at some sort of strange sibling relations in their past, but nothing specific is revealed. “We’re not bad people,” she mysteriously remarks at one point, “we just come from a bad place.” Maybe she only means New Jersey.
The main problem with Shame is that Brandon is so relentlessy, one-dimensionally miserable that the movie could have been written by a monogamy-promoting “morality in media” church committee. His self-loathing eventually morphs into overtly self-destructive behavior that gets him beat up. What’s supposed to be his lowest point comes when he reacts to being turned away from one of his regular haunts by literally and symbolically crossing the street to try his luck at a grimly dismal gay sex club. That bit of badly lit sodomy is followed by a wild three-way with a pair of bisexual call girls. The poor guy.
Although Fassbender is believably bored and Mulligan credibly neurotic, James Badge Dale verges into bad rom-com territory as Brandon’s trying-too-hard boss David. His achingly bad pick-up moves are too over-the-top for a movie that’s trying so hard the rest of the time to trade in anxiety, alienation and ennui.
Ticket-buyers hoping to glimpse the full nasty should be aware that Shame doesn’t really earn its adults-only label and should have been rated “R.” There’s full nudity, and a couple of ridiculously unnecessary scenes in which Brandon takes an onscreen whizz. But the simulated sex includes no erections, gap shots, insertions or ejaculations. Don’t go expecting explicitly hardcore triple-X frolics, in other words.
In fact, the movie’s most erotically charged scene is one that’s played fully clothed. At a bar, Brandon entices a female stranger by seductively describing exactly what he would do to her that her boyfriend doesn’t. Her increasingly interested reaction looks intriguingly genuine.
Director/co-writer (with Abi Morgan) Steve McQueen is overly fond of very lengthy takes, a technique that comes across as more artsy than artful. This technique is taken to an excruciating extreme during lounge-singer Sissy’s interminably draggy performance of “New York, New York,” where the camera remains trained on her face so long that your vagabond shoes will be longing to stray. Later, Brandon takes what looks like a mile-long jog through the city in a shot that doesn’t have a single edit, or a point.
If the movie had presented a more plausible portrait of Brandon, instead of putting him on display as a stonefaced zombie who treats sex as an uninteresting compulsion in between spasms of capital-S Shame, it would be easier to enjoy this coldly colorless character study.
[Rating: 2.5 stars]
Shame opens in theaters on Friday December 2, 2011