Movie Review: Shame (2011)
WARNING: TOP-OF-THE-HEAP SPOILERS
In “The Unbearable Lightness of Being,” it took Daniel Day Lewis four words to get women into bed: “Take off your clothes.”
Piker. It often takes Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender), the protagonist of “Shame,” no words. He’ll just look at a pretty girl on the subway, suggest with his eyes, smolder a bit, wait for the tension to mount, and she’s ready. He’ll sidle up to his hyperactive boss, David (James Bade Dale of “The Pacific”), who’s trying to make the pretty one at the bar, say one or two words, and suddenly she’s casting him the kind of glances most men don’t receive in a lifetime.
Normally such a character would be wish fulfillment. Not here. Fassbender, impeccably groomed, is in almost every shot of “Shame” but it’s writer-director Steve McQueen’s movie. He sets the tone, which is moody, atmospheric, full of dread. Every day for Brandon is another day of desperately needing sex but desperately not needing the contact that goes with it. There’s something inside of him that can’t be fulfilled. In this, he’s like all of us, but his need is greater and the moments he’s satiated shorter. The title of this movie could be the title of McQueen’s first movie: “Hunger.”
“Shame” is more portrait than story. It’s a snapshot from a life. Brandon has a business-type, investment-type job in New York, which he apparently does well even though he’s rarely thinking about. He’s a sex addict so he’s always thinking about his next fix. In the toilet stall at work? In his bathroom at home? Via online pornography, magazines, DVDs? With Prostitute A, B, or both? With this girl at the bar or that girl on the subway? At that straight club? At that gay club?
There’s a cool exterior to Brandon, an unknowability and mystery that’s obviously appealing. Who is that man behind the scarf? But the cool exterior hides ... what? His sexual need and what else? A few books line the shelves of his high-rise condo, including, I was happy to see, Don DeLillo’s “Underworld”; but one can’t imagine him reading it. How could he sit still that long?
His careful routine, the veneer of respectability hiding his monstrous shame, is upset when his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), shows up at his place. She’s a free spirit, a singer at posh bars, and later we hear her rendition of “New York, New York,” the triumphant ode to Manhattan that’s played after every Yankees victory; but she delivers it slow and sad, from the perspective of someone who isn’t A-number-1, top of the heap. It’s a beautiful moment in the movie, one of several moments Mulligan gives us. I still think of the way she bounces with delight on the subway platform after Brandon agrees to hear her sing. She wants to be part of his life—that’s her need—but it conflicts with his need. At one point, she alludes to their fucked-up childhood, and one wonders if there’s more there than the usual fuckedupness; if there wasn’t abuse of some kind. But we never get specifics. We get vapors.
She sleeps with his boss, his married boss, at Brandon’s place, and he can’t deal with it and goes running. She hangs too close to the tracks on the subway platform and he pulls her back. They’re both self-destructive but hers is sloppy and showy—there are scars on her wrists—and his is secretive and shameful and infecting every aspect of his life. She wants to pull him into the light but he reacts with anger. “I’m trying to help you,” she says. “How do you help?” he responds through clenched teeth. “You come here and you’re a weight on me.” After the movie, Patricia said he reminded her of me in this moment. That’s one thing I have in common with Brandon. We both feel easily trapped. We both live life in the exit row.
He makes a feint at respectability. He goes on a date with an attractive co-worker, Marianne (Nicole Beharie), and reacts to the dinner conversation as if it’s all new and amusing to him. A back and forth ... with words? He admits his longest relationship was just four months. He admits that that’s how he likes it. She doesn’t flee. Maybe, after the usual, first-date bullshit, this straightforwardness is refreshing. Maybe it’s the scarf and the Ewan McGregor smile. All those small charming teeth.
Was he always interested in Marianne as more than just another lay? Or did that idea only emerge when Sissy found him jacking off in the bathroom and found live sex girls on his home computer? After that, he tries to get rid of it all—the magazines, the DVDs, the computer itself—as if getting rid of the evidence of his need will get rid of the need. He wants to be clean again and he sees Marianne as the path to cleanliness. But when they finally fall into bed together he can’t get it up. For a moment we think this is his fate—to overdo it and then be unable to do it—but after she leaves we get a quick cut of him banging a prostitute in the same room, so that’s obviously not the problem. The problem is the cleanliness and the respectability. He can’t have it with any kind of meaning. He can only have it in a way that leaves him unfilled and seeking it again. It’s as if the disease is protecting itself from him. His disease needs to keep him hungry. It’s saying: You’re married to me.
“Shame” is a snapshot from a life because there’s no real resolution. There’s not even a program he enters. That would be too afterschool special. There’s just need and heartache and awful need again. Sissy tries to kill herself but she’s tried to kill herself before. Brandon binges on sex but no doubt he’s binged before. It leaves him exhausted and crying but the thing inside him won’t come out. Sexaholism used to be a punchline to me—who isn’t addicted to sex?—but Steve McQueen shows us the difference as well as the similarity. The difference is in volume and the similarity is in almost everything else. The similarity is in trying to get this thing out of us. The similarity is in the lack of resolution or resurrection. In the end, Brandon is back on the subway, and there’s that girl again, and now she’s ready; and the hunger is always ready.