It should come as no surprise that Shame director and co-writer Steve McQueen's background is in fine art. The movie's aesthetic is sharply focused; McQueen carefully places every detail in every frame. From the sterile, IKEA-chic apartment of the film's protagonist to the lights of New York City, Shame is steered by its director, for better or for worse. Unfortunately for the inhabitants of the film, when it comes to their fates, it's mostly for worse.
Brandon Sullivan (played by Michael Fassbender) is a guy with a vaguely hip, vaguely high-powered office job. It turns out he's also hiding a serious sex addiction. Within the first few scenes, the extent of his habit is laid out: hookers, furious masturbation, and raunchy porn over takeout, to name but a few of his everyday activities. For the most part, he manages to keep a clear divide between his sex life and his professional life, but when his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) drops back into the picture, that line starts to blur.
Before her arrival, Brandon's world is fairly simple, and McQueen paints a clear portrait of it. When Brandon returns to his apartment one evening, he's alarmed to hear music blasting beyond the front door. He finds Sissy, uninvited, showering inside, her clothes scattered all over.
While Brandon lacks emotion, Sissy bubbles with passion, whether she's weeping ardent "I love you"s to an unseen ex over the phone or cackling with laughter. Her brother shuts down at any sign of intimacy, but she sops it up and demands it from those showing any hint of offering. As the title suggests, they're both sharing a burden from the past, and they shoulder it in very different ways.
McQueen and co-writer Abi Morgan carry a heavy load as well, tackling a story that could easily snowball into something far too bleak for most viewers to handle. The film certainly isn't afraid to shock, but it does know when to pull back and let the audience put the pieces together themselves.
For a film with so much sex, there is very little sexiness in it. McQueen places the viewer in the mind of an addict, forever chasing the next fix. It's less about allure and more about flesh hitting flesh. In many ways, his depiction of the human body hearkens back to his previous film Hunger, about a fatal 1981 Irish Republican Army hunger strike that also stars Fassbender. Both movies show what men are capable of when taken to extremes, and both contain some seriously cringe-worthy moments. Yet despite their ugliness, both are also gorgeously shot without feeling too exploitative.
Deep red blood on white ceramic tile. Thrusting body parts. Extreme closeups of faces contorted in ecstasy or agony. Through it all, Shame manages to magnify elements of the characters' lives without getting too abstract. By holding on to the humanity in the face of all the sex, violence, and secrets, McQueen proves he can uphold his focused vision without getting too myopic.
Shame 3 ½ STARS
Opens Friday at the Cedar Lee Theatre.
pullquote: For a film with so much sex, there is very little sexiness in it.