By Phil Hall | December 6, 2011

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.

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  1. howard says:

    Phil why does Brandon’s profession have anything to do with how we perceive his relationship with his boss? What difference would it make if he worked in marketing? Or was a stock broker or an architect? The only important factor is the relationship the two have, you couldn’t justify masturbating in the bathroom because you had a particular type of office job.

    You don’t have to have everything spelled out, what’s wrong with meeting the director halfway. what do you think happened in sissy and Brandon’s past? What job do you think he has? Does he have a slightly murky past with his sister? These are questions you can answer yourself and come up with your own theories, there not plot holes they’re left unanswered for a reason.

  2. Matt says:

    Completely disagree on nearly every level. Fassbender owns this film with such a commanding and focused performance always keeping the audience gripped. I never found the film dull but instead was totally wrapped up in it and found it truly absorbing. There were so many standout, memorable moments from the ‘New York, New York’ bar scene to the jogging sequence. The film is shot with style and with confidence for a fairly new dierctor. The long, held shots are fearless but they work. The whole point of the film is that Brandon is not a freak, he’s one of us so you can relate to him. It would be boring if everyone liked the same films but your criticism is aimed at elements that don’t even make sense, for example the amount of ‘hardcore action’ and appealing to Academy voters. A shameful review.

  3. Phil Hall says:

    The failure to mention Brandon’s line of work is a problem because a significant part of the film revolves around his employment, particularly in his relationship with his boss and in his bringing his addiction to the workplace.

  4. sam says:

    Wow…what a bad review. You missed the whole point of the film. Why does the line of work and source of trama need to be spelled out for you. Brandon is an everyman…his line of work is not important. There are many clues that Brandon and Cissy may have had an inappropriate sexual relationship…but like so much about sex…as it still haunts them, it remains unspeakable. You should get your film critic license revoked for your review on this one…not every thing can be as simple as Transformers dude.

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