Shame is Steve McQueen’s controversial peek into the life of a sex addict, starring Michael Fassbender’s penis and Carey Mulligan. The film explores the self-destructiveness of Fassbender’s Brandon whilst juxtaposing it with his sister’s more overt cries for help. There’s an intriguing tale waiting to be unearthed, but the execution is more focused on shock value than character development and too often Shame misses the mark.
Opening in Brandon’s Manhattan apartment, Fassbender quickly swings into view. Cutting between shots of a prostitute at his home and Brandon leering at an attractive, married commuter on the Metro, the viewer is then treated to *ahem* a lengthy glimpse of Fassbender’s penis micturating. The lingering shot reeks of pointless inclusion and adds nothing to the narrative. Next Brandon is seen pleasuring himself in the shower, the first of many scenes Fassbender spends jerking off in. Switching back to his Metro journey, the sultry redhead escapes Brandon’s predatory advances and McQueen moves the action to Brandon’s office, where his computer has been seized due to virus concerns and his almost equally sex-crazed boss, David (James Badge Dale) is introduced. Following more self-pleasuring, sexual conquests and porn, Brandon’s sister enters the equation. Previously heard in voice-mails begging him to phone her, Sissy (Mulligan) is found having made herself quite at home in his apartment. Annoyed by her presence and the impact it has on his regular routine of masturbatory occupation, he reluctantly agrees to let her crash there for a short time. Lounge singer Sissy goes on to perform a terribly drawn out performance of “New York, New York” with her brother and a prowling David in the audience. In the ensuing discussion, Sissy’s self-harm is raised briefly before she’s bedded by her brother’s boss, leading to one of Shame’s most amusing scenes. The rest of the film plays out with more banging, wanking and sibling rifts, before it reaches a breaking point filled with desperation and depression.
Despite there being an intensely interesting psychological story at the heart of Shame, McQueen squanders it with senseless contrivances and trying too hard to be provocative. Too many logic defying moments detract from the internal struggles that are only partially developed. The backgrounds of Brandon and Sissy are glossed over and the reasons for their emotional damage are never properly explored. Fassbender is good, not spectacular, as the smarmy sex fiend. It may be viewed by some as a brave role, but surely, it can only be so brave for a man of his… stature. He does seem to “dive” into his work, but then who can blame him? Mulligan is solid as always, but would be wise to stick to her day job and avoid the route of other Hollywood starlets of releasing her own record. Shame is framed quite well, but several scenes drag on far longer than necessary, such as Mulligan’s singing or Fassbender’s animalistic threesome. There’s a tenuous link implied between self-harm and suicide, and while the idea may be to illustrate the deep self-loathing that the siblings express in their own way, there would be more effective avenues to convey Sissy’s side, such as substance abuse. As it stands, the plot feels as cheap and meaningless as Brandon’s random encounters.
The truth about Shame is that it could have been far better. Unfortunately it becomes a perfect example of self-indulgent film-making that muddles the point. McQueen takes too many shortcuts and the script doesn’t hold-up to scrutiny. What shines in Shame, Brandon’s depraved sex-binge for example, is quickly sullied by the film’s failings, rendering it a perfectly average film with above average nudity. Still, a campaign for best supporting actor should begin here; Fassbender’s penis has a bright future ahead of it. 7/10