"We're not bad people. We've just come from a bad place."
I had gone to Boston to see three films on Thursday, and I only ended up with two. A modest disappointment to be certain, given that I'd been so looking forward to "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy". It's been on the radar as a handsomely constructed underworld spy film, and nothing could've crushed me more than the first ten minutes of what I saw. Mostly because, I couldn't understand a thing of what they were saying. There was a 3 second lag on audio, and it was about 10 octave too low on the pitch scale. So I swapped out of that pretty quickly, and sent my attention to "Shame", which I had hoped would be my night-ending film, which it quite unexpectedly was.
I was already pretty well downtrodden in mood, having felt ripped off by the theater I had visited. And yet this was pretty much the perfect transition into Steve McQueen's second directorial effort. The weeks past have made several statements on what this film does right and what it does wrong, with many a reviewer drawing some issue with it. Fox Searchlight has been gearing this as an odd Best Picture stab, a fantasy that is unlikely to come close to reality, sad as it is to say. It's almost outcast for the NC-17 rating alone, as if the content that gives it that mark has no further relevance. What is most ironic about all this is that Steve McQueen's style, however radical, does skew oddly accessibly.
That is a most bizarre statement, but "Hunger" was this bizarre type of action film, with the stakes made so prevalent by the determination the protagonists are willing to show to overcome it. Needless to say, "Shame" is no kind of action film, and in fact could be just as easily called an inaction film. If that makes it sound simple and easy, that may be the perfect way to walk into this film. There's no marketing that could really prepare you for how this film hits its marks. Even in description, it doesn't often come out as compelling as the film puts it. I've heard it described way too often as simply, "It's about a sex addict". That is the long and short of it, but it stunts the impact of the situation in a way that the film really doesn't deserve.
The film doesn't just place us into the routine of Brandon, but puts emphasis on this desperate portion of his life. Of course that's rather evident wherever you go, but the fact that this seems to have been going on for some time brings attention to where we are coming in on it. Films don't start at a certain point for no reason. There's always a reason for what we're seeing and why we're seeing it, or at least there should be. Steve McQueen seems to be more aware of this than most, putting painstaking effort to make the film especially dynamic, but not showy enough to show his own hand at work. There is scarcely a moment in the film that takes me out of the experience.
This isn't a film about events that put a grind against our protagonists. It's a film about protagonists that put the grind on themselves and are too fearful to stop it. In the opening sequence, we see Brandon taking the subway opposite a married young lady who flirts with for a solid few minutes before realizing that he isn't going to back down after she gets off. Fassbender deals with scenes like this with aggressive knowledge of how much of a monster he is. Brandon isn't ignorant of the problem. He realizes he has a problem, but rather than deal with it, succumbs to it. His sexual compulsions, put forth upon him by the world he inhabits, control him rather than the other way around.
And he isn't alone in these trials, as Carey Mulligan's Sissy comes on as somebody who is equally as dysfunctional as Brandon, hinting at a similar cause of their strife at the heart of it. McQueen never gives a reason for why Sissy and Brandon are the way they are, but puts in ambiguous strokes for where their lives intersected before. In fact, so much of the film is rigorously ambiguous, which if given too much room can prove for an empty watch, but this film is anything but empty. McQueen never finds himself boxed in. There's always room to strip away the surface of what's going on for its emotional ends.
As the film goes on, the cruel situation Brandon has found himself in becomes more and more devastating. Up until a certain point, the audience takes it in stride, not grasping the severity of his condition, much like he is. There comes a time when things become too difficult to suppress, and from there it mushrooms rather chaotically. The height of it comes very close to the end, in the scene that singularly earns the film's NC-17 rating, and it's in fact one of the most difficult scenes to watch this year, and yet you can't look away for a second. Out of many gapingly effective sequences, it's the one that rises above the pack.
As far as titles go, "Shame" may just be the most appropriate title for a single film this year. It's something that is never said, but is so very much felt. It deals with the tragedy dwelling within characters who are unwilling to stop their own destructiveness, and it wouldn't have worked unless these characters were on the borderline of despicable trash. Fassbender and Mulligan both get their chances to earn our sympathies, and are never ignorant enough to make us despise them. We don't love them in the slightest, but we passionately care about them nevertheless. It's a difficult feeling to express, but I doubt we'd have cared at all if we weren't being served by two actors as lovely as Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan.
Both of them work so effectively against the grain of what we have expected of them. Fassbender isn't milking stoicism here where he has in pretty much every other film this year. There is a light to his face here that is only seen in the characters he has a profound devotion to. Too many people misunderstand his strengths and put him in a position to be utterly joyless, and even though this is the most despairing film of his this year, the crevices he makes for light emotionality do volumes for his affinity as a character. Brandon would not have worked if he wasn't an emotional being. It's emotion that drives him.
Even more of an acute departure from the norm is Carey Mulligan, who found slighter ways to augment her performance earlier this year in "Drive", but this time around does something even more radical. From every piece of promotion for this film, we have seen her as this fragile little flower she's always been portrayed as. The moment she makes her way onscreen, she is playing absolute opposite of our expectations. Sissy is trashy, volatile, and extreme in her emotionality as compared to Brandon. Hers is a much messier and more chaotic performance, and it serves her to astounding effect. It is the root basis of the unexpected.
With two performances that are so messy, it makes sense that the film itself is rather messy. Occasionally it doesn't quite work, most especially in the final few minutes of the film. The ending is the only moment that rings as dishonest in comparison to the whole of the rest. Other than that, messiness serves the narrative and the near flawless aesthetic of the film. It creates a world that is not at all a far cry from "reality". In fact, it is rather devastatingly similar to the world we live in. McQueen is the weight that is just freeing enough for "Shame" to teeter on the edge of destruction with such wild abandon, but with enough restraint to keep it from complete collapse. He continues to conjure such richly textured and impassive images with now regular D.P. Sean Bobbitt, but also gives the film flight with Harry Escott's heart-synchronizing score. With all departments crackling on all cylinders, it's impossible to give this one no considerations at all.