Give credit to Fox Searchlight for releasing Steve McQueen’s “Shame” with an NC-17 rating. Perhaps this will signal the dawn of a new era for emotionally mature cinema for adults who are willing to be provoked and challenged by difficult subject matter.
Unfortunately, “Shame” is not the kind of film that will signal the start of an artistic revolution. This painfully boring drama is about an emotionally hollow New Yorker named Brandon (Michael Fassbender) whose life is slowly fraying due to his obsessive sex addiction. Whether watching pornography online, picking up hot chicks in bars, hiring prostitutes, giving himself self-satisfaction or even walking on the wild side in a gay bar, Brandon can’t get enough.
But things go awry when his sibling Sissy, an emotionally needy singer (Carey Mulligan), abruptly forces her way into sharing his apartment. The siblings are emotionally mismatched to an extreme, and her presence puts a crimp on Brandon’s take-home fun.
Fassbender walks through the film like a Romero zombie. Most of his performance is handled by his designer wardrobe (for his non-carnal scenes) and his chiseled physique (for the steamier sequences) – his hollow line readers and lack of star charisma will confuse viewers who are under the old-fashioned impression that central characters in movies are supposed to be interesting. Mulligan, perhaps sensing a void in Fassbender’s performance, goes full-throttle in encompassing every imaginable emotion at high-decibel levels. It is the type of performance that appeals to less-demanding Academy voters, but one that has no relation to reality.
The one saving grace here is James Badge Dale as Brandon’s crass yet clumsy boss. He has a few amusing moments as a would-be ladies’ man. But his presence also raises a significant flaw in “Shame”: McQueen never bothers to provide some important details, such as Brandon’s line of work (we see him in a nondescript office, but we have no clue what he does) or how the siblings became so emotionally screwed up. (Sissy offers a vague clue with her comment, “We’re not bad people – we just come from a bad place.”) The incomplete nature of the screenplay makes it impossible to understand, let alone sympathize, with the dull characters.
The NC-17 rating might suggest some hardcore action, but McQueen’s artsy direction and Sean Bobbitt’s antiseptic cinematography carefully capture the actors in a way to suggest dirty doing without actually seeing anything happen. Mulligan has a brief moment of full front nudity, while Fassbender’s full frontal moment is fleeting and carefully camouflaged by a convenient shadow.
One other note: Harry Escott’s classical music score seems to have been lifted from an old Merchant-Ivory production of Edwardian romantic angst and dumped haphazardly on the soundtrack of this contemporary New York drama. It is hard to recall another film where the score was so totally inappropriate to the film it was supporting.
Or, to be flippant, “Shame” is a snooze.