Review of Shame

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Michael Fassbender & Carey Mulligan star in this 2011 drama film directed by Steve McQueen. Set in New York City, a man's (Fassbender) carefully cultivated private life allows him to indulge his sexual addiction. That is, until his wayward younger sister (Mulligan) arrives unannounced for an indefinite stay.
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Movie Review: "Shame"

Rating: NC-17 (explicit sexual content)
Length: 101 minutes
Release Date: December 7, 2011
Directed by: Steve McQueen
Genre: Drama
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Michael Fassbender gives a stunning performance as Brandon Sullivan, who is deep in the throes of sexual addiction. The movie establishes this by showing just a few of his many sexual encounters, complete with full frontal nudity. These sexual encounters are not just with women'some are by computer and aided by porn.

Brandon clearly has an insatiable sexual appetite, yet for all the companionship he gets in bed, he is absolutely alone. His Manhattan apartment is barely furnished and is reminiscent of the apartment in "American Psycho." The decor is so bare as to be almost aseptic.

One of his earliest attempted conquests is on a subway. He spies a pretty redhead and begins seducing her using nothing but his eyes. It is working, and the woman looks ready to go home with him. Then she has a sudden crisis of conscience and is seen running off the subway, Brandon behind her like he is stalking prey. The fact that it took her losing him in the crowd for him to stop pursuing her speaks to Brandon;s inability to understand or relate to others.

In fact, most of Fassbender's performance is nonverbal, which makes it all the more powerful. He can say more with his facial ticks than most actors can with their entire body. The film credits say that it is loosely based on Abi Morgan and director Steve McQueen's screenplay, and it shows. Much of the acting likely wasn't scripted because there isn;t a lot of dialogue. That is, until Brandon's sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) comes to town.

Sissy is a suicidal mess of a lounge singer who toddles into New York City from Los Angeles unannounced. This puts a huge wrench into Brandon's life as she has no money and nowhere else to go. He very reluctantly allows her to stay.

The bond or lack thereof between the siblings is explored through the rest of the movie. These two individuals are highly damaged, and there seems to be some kind of unspoken rift between them. The audience is never given insight into what exactly happened that made them nearly strangers to each other as adults. They try to talk and relate to each other, but some of it is very awkward.

As Brandon can't bring home women or call up a hooker anytime he wants to satisfy his addiction now that Sissy is around, he tries to date instead. There is a woman in his office named Marianne (Nicole Beharie) who has had a crush on him for some time. He decides to try going out on a date with her like normal people do. He alternates between looking completely bored and completely engrossed in what she has to say. Somehow, she still manages a kiss and to get a second date.

Things seem to progress well until the two are about to have sex for the first time. Brandon can't seem to perform, and we can see the hurt in his eyes. He clearly likes this woman and wants to make love to her. Somehow, he can't, because that would mean a real relationship with another human.

Brandon's frustration boils over later when Sissy accidentally walks in on him masturbating. He angrily throws on a bath towel and chases her into the living room, yelling and cursing. This yelling and cursing may just be the most he says at once in the entire film.

Mulligan's performance is every bit as good as Fassbender's, particularly in this scene. She goes from giggling to sheer terror in seconds flat as Brandon holds her down on the sofa, threatening her. His towel falls off and he is naked on top of his sister in a haunting scene that is clearly meant to challenge the audience.

For a moment it looks like the siblings might engage in incest, which will definitely get a reaction out of most viewers. This could be a clue as to why the two were previously semi-estranged. It could also mean nothing at all. It is left up to the audience to decide.

This is not a happy story, and the characters are clearly not meant for a happy ending. The beauty is that only Marianne is shown to have any redeemable qualities, yet somehow you still care for all of the characters. You want to know what happens to them and wish for that happy ending. This speaks volumes about director McQueen and the bravura performances he coaxed out of his stars.