|Fassbender is magnetic...Get it? Anyone?|
How do you measure the best films you see? What system do you use to determine whether a film is “great” or not? I’m not asking as a reviewer. I’m asking as a moviegoer. When you look back on the best movies you’ve ever seen, why do you think they were the best? More often than not, those movies will be the ones you can see yourself watching over and over again.
But there should be a special place reserved in our hearts for the movies that aren’t easy to relive. We’ve all seen those. They’re dark, they’re real, they’re emotionally harrowing, and while we can walk away deeply moved and impressed by the cinematic power we’ve just witnessed, we can’t imagine going through it again anytime soon. Shame, Steve McQueen’s second feature film, should be added to that list.
The premise is deceptively simple. Brandon (Michael Fassbender, who also starred in McQueen’s first film, Hunger) has a great job and a great New York apartment, but struggles privately with an increasingly disruptive sex addiction. His life is further complicated by the arrival of his free-spirited sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) on his doorstep, fresh off a lovers’ quarrel and looking for a place to crash. As his addiction consumes more and more of his time and energy, Brandon finds his private life suffering, and an air of desperation sets in.
I was immediately amazed by how physically beautiful the film is. The first shot is a wonderfully composed portrait of Fassbender lying in bed, staring at the ceiling. From there, McQueen uses the cityscape to his advantage, crafting magnetic and compelling images even amid the ugliest of human struggles. It’s a juxtaposition that makes the film both visually fascinating and emotionally complex.
McQueen’s skill as a writer also shines here. Shame never descends into clichéd melodrama or becomes a sensationalized tale of moral consequences. It’s the story of a man’s battle with himself, told well and told true, and even in its slowest moments (of which there are a few) that adherence to a genuine, unadorned story keeps it compelling.
The center of the film, though, both logistically and emotionally, is Fassbenber. It’s a masterful performance. Brandon doesn’t talk much, doesn’t ever have one of those great confessional moments that allows him a measure of redemption. The movie’s called Shame, after all, and Fassbender lets it seep into every pore of the character. He’s only now becoming a true movie star, but this film also proves that Fassbender is one of the finest actors of his generation. Mulligan also shines, balancing out Brandon’s often cold demeanor with fire and vulnerability.
Shame is not an easy film to watch, but it is nonetheless an extraordinary one. Sometimes the best films are the most harrowing, and even if you only see this one once, it’s a trip worth taking.
Shame is available everywhere on Blu-Ray and DVD.