Shame is a freight train slamming into the side of your head. It’s a suckerpunch, a kick in the nuts, and a lightning-rod all rolled into one. Yes, the film is rated NC-17. No, there’s no way it ever could have been rated R. This is a picture conceived to be exactly what it is, a brutally honest portrait of a modern man, a modern man whose got a seriously twisted outlook on life. It’s hard to watch, it’s unrelenting, and you won’t walk out feeling happy or upbeat in any way. I don’t know if I could ever sit through it again, but in this case that’s a sign that the movie achieved exactly what it set out to achieve. You want to look away but you can’t, and the easy way out isn’t a concept that director Steve McQueen seems familiar with.
Lets start with the easiest component to address. If Michael Fassbender doesn’t get an Academy Award nomination for his work here, there’s really nothing he could do to earn that accolade. He goes through such an emotional rollercoaster here that there’s simply nothing more to play. Every major dramatic character has a piece of the psyche that is Brandon, but few are even close to as compelling or involving. Fassbender, for his part, is mesmerizing here, giving the kind of performance that can grow to define a career. This is his movie, and whether you like it or not, he carries the work head and shoulders above his peers. The movie wouldn’t exist, let alone work without him, and you may never be able to look at him in another movie the same way again. Carey Mulligan, meanwhile, is on a roll of her own, and between this and Drive, has two of my favorite supporting performances of the year. In truth, there is no lead actress role in the film, and though Mulligan easily has the most screen time of any other character, she acts in a more force-of-nature variety, bringing with her the unhinging chaos that Brandon has done his best to force to the sidelines of his life. The scenes between the two of them are the glue that holds the movie together, but she does a great job of never overplaying her hand, even when her back is literally or figuratively up against a wall.
Then we come to the unique, and harder to quantify aspects of the work. These are the things most likely to rub a person the wrong way, and could, if taken together, devalue the entire project. For one, there’s the nudity; male, female, full frontal, sexual, disturbing, the works. Many people will find the candor with which the nudity is displayed as shocking, disconcerting, and at the very least, invasive to their own sense of privacy. Desensitization occurs rather quickly but in the early
going, it can be a lot to take. Once you embrace the world and embrace the vision it all becomes clear. This is a man who knows exactly the story he’s trying to tell, and has a singular idea of how that story is going to play out. The number of shots greater than a minute long is staggering, and that method of coverage allows the actors to immerse themselves completely in the scenes and in their characters. The lack of cuts prevents the audience from taking traditional moments to breathe during conversation scenes, and the pacing can be absolutely brutal to witness. Again, you’ll either love it or you’ll hate it, and though it worked for me, I can see it being a sticking point for others.
Looking back on Shame, I can’t help but feel relieved. It’s like the Hollywood system as a whole has been so caught up in the nature of ratings and standards that they’ve forgotten to tell good stories. This just so happens to be a story that couldn’t have been told any differently than it was, or at least not with the amount of impact it retains. Was it a fun popcorn muncher? Absolutely not, but I’m glad I had a chance to see it, especially if Fassbender goes on to get the Oscar he deserves. It may be too early in the season to start handicapping such things now, but in my mind, he’s on a level all his own. I wish the crew the best of luck, and urge you to check out the film, after taking careful stock of your own sensitivities. This won’t be a movie for everyone, but it’s definitely one of the most powerful films I’ve seen this year.