Shame (2011) Film Review, a movie directed by Steve McQueen and starring Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale, Amy Hargreaves, Elizabeth Masucci, Hannah Ware, Nicole Beharie, Lucy Walters, Briana Marin, Anna Rose Hopkins, Alexandra Vino, Charisse Bellante, Jake Richard Siciliano, Alex Manette, and Robert Montano.
Shame relies on the viewer’s intelligence to fill in the past of the film’s main protagonists. Though viewers that are fans of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit will be apt to do so, its made clear that the two leads are unstable. This instability is based on sex and sexual contact and because of that, director Steve McQueen makes them characters in the film, characters that are granted more and more screen time with their co-stars as the film progresses.
Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender) does not seem to like physical contact with his sister Sissy Sullivan (Carey Mulligan), screaming at her to get out of bed after she ventures into it and snuggles close. This illustrates one issue and begs two questions. It illustrates that Brandon may be the only source of emotional love Sissy has and she is drawn to that. The two questions Brandon’s reaction begs are: a.) how many times in the past has Sissy done this, and b.) has she ever tried something else while in bed with him? Its never suggested or implied. There is only Brandon’s reaction. His outburst seems to suggest both scenarios are true and that one knows its wrong while the other does not care.
When not dealing with his sister, Brandon exudes a silent charisma and confidence that he can get anyone he sets his mind on, much like Mystery from the TV show The Pick Up Artist. He is perceptive, detail orientated, and extremely bold when it comes to a “mark” he has in his sights. He can even be intimating and blatant with his desire and unquenchable lust.
Both Brandon and Sissy have compulsions but Brandon is able to hide his below the veneer of normalcy: job, career, apartment, all the trappings of steady, middle America. Sissy’s is less able to hide as the scars adoring her arms and her “day after” phone call attest to. The damage and longing to be someone then immediately pushing any hope of that away is a reflex she is aware of and not in control of. She can’t even hear how absurd and stalk-ish she sounds during her “day after” phone call. Her pleas are almost anguished. This is at odds with her physical looks and her ability (because of those looks) to acquire virtually any man she pleases. She begs for things most guys would give her freely: attention, companionship, and a relationship.
When Sissy is singing her melancholy rendition of John Kander and Fred Ebb’s “New York, New York”, the sadness in her voice brings her brother to tears. It is a song about New York City he and the viewer have probably heard a hundred times but her morose version is filled with sorrow, pain, and the past (their shared past). Its one of those scenes where a character shows the viewer the hand they are holding and then snatches away that glimpse ever so quickly, leaving the viewer with a vertigo feeling because the character quickly puts back on their “game face”.
Brandon discards his game face and shows a completely different side to himself (is this the real Brandon?) in Shame’s third act. Though there is far more elaboration in this incarnation, Brandon’s rapid fire night of multiple partners and sexual bliss has elongated shades of the montage scene in the third act of Roger Avary’s The Rules of Attraction. Brandon goes from one scenario to another trying to satiate an extremely resilient impulse, during which the futility of what he is doing is written in anguished creases on his face.
Adding to Brandon true nature is his ridiculous pornography obsession and collection. It is almost as if part of him is stuck in adolescence when puberty first struck as his penis needs a heavy diet of daily attention.
In the third act of Shame, Steve McQueen uses a little pledge, turn, and prestige on the viewer. He laid the groundwork for a terrible, train-based scenario in the first act but that is not the truth, even as truths come out on a voice mail from Sissy. It is something else, something far more familiar.
Does Brandon change by the end of the film, from his actions, his in-actions, and the actions of his sister or will he continue down the same, self-destructive road? Steve McQueen does not make it easy on the viewer nor does he answer the question, he merely poses it.