Shame (Sony Pictures Classics, NC-17)

film shame smBy the end of the film, it almost feels as if director Steve McQueen has lost interest and just needs a way to put some semblance of closure on the proceedings.

film shame lg

Britain’s Steve McQueen (no relation; the Steve McQueen you’re thinking of died in 1980) is a fascinating filmmaker. With Shame, he’s now made two feature films, the other being 2008’s Hunger, and both films are something close to fantastic. That said, there’s something vaguely maddening in his style. As a filmmaker, his interest seems to be in making great scenes and not necessarily a great overall movie. Those who saw Hunger will likely most vividly remember the bravura sequence in the middle of the film in which Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) discusses suicide with Father Dominic (Liam Cunningham) in a scene whose majority consists of one unbroken 17-minute take, with much of the rest of the film likely to slip from memory. There are no scenes with the potency of the suicide discussion in Shame, which again stars Fassbender, though there are a multitude of ones that come close. Again, though, and particularly so this time since he’s not tied to a true story, McQueen doesn’t seem terribly interested in fashioning a traditional narrative with believable dialogue or plot progression, or even much in the way of a climax.

This pun is, at least, somewhat intended, as it’s well known by now that Shame is the portrait of a sex addict. Here we have Fassbender as Brandon, a handsome, fairly successful, and nondescript New Yorker who spends basically every minute he can get away with pursuing sex, be it with other people, watching pornography, masturbating in the bathroom of his office, or just about anything else so long as it doesn’t involve any actual human emotion.

The thrust of the plot (and here the pun is definitely intended; sorry) comes from his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan, playing against type and doing a good job of it). She’s troubled in ways not entirely dissimilar from Brandon’s, but she’s less reserved about her problems, and comes to stay with Brandon when she needs moral and financial support the most. And while Brandon and Sissy don’t exactly have a bad relationship, her living in his bachelor pad interferes with his constant jerking off, which is something he can’t abide by.

In the film’s 100-minute runtime we are treated to probably half a dozen standout scenes, which on a piecemeal basis are about as good as anything you can hope to see in the theater this year. Particularly good are scenes of awkward seduction: Brandon’s boss David (James Badge Dale) striking out with a woman at a club as Brandon looks on; Brandon’s date with a co-worker—the latter being of particular interest in once again putting McQueen’s predilection for long takes to good use; one in a restaurant; and one on the walk from the restaurant to the subway are among the greatest highlights of the film. Elsewhere, we have threeways, Carey Mulligan’s much-discussed scene singing “New York, New York” in close-up, David unwittingly telling Brandon that a lot of filth was found on his work computer, and others. While these are all again done excellently, by the end of the film, it almost feels as if McQueen has lost interest and just needs a way to put some semblance of closure on the proceedings.

Unsatisfying as the overall arc of the film may be, it’s still absolutely worth seeing, and as I’ve said contains some of the most memorable passages of any film you’re likely to see anytime soon. Here’s hoping that, in future endeavors, McQueen is able to sustain the perfection sometimes achieved here. I mean this as the highest compliment that, despite his already having made two excellent films already in his young career, I like to think that McQueen’s best work is still ahead of him. | Pete Timmermann

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