Shame (****)

‘Shame’ is not just a portrait of sex addiction.  It’s also a movie about damaged siblings, the struggle against one’s own nature, and also the absolute loneliness that living in New York can entail.  In fact, this is one of the best movies in years about New York, with the city functioning as its own character.  Filmmaker Steve McQueen brings his artistic sensibilities to a tough story and makes something beautiful and haunting out of it.  It certainly doesn’t hurt that he has Oscar worthy performances from Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan in the film.  In fact, Fassbender’s work is the best I’ve seen by an actor all year, and Mulligan is easily in the top 10.  I was blown away by this flick…it’s never easy to watch, but you can’t look away.  From the impeccably precise direction to the magnificent acting to piercing score and wonderful cinematography, everything about this film is just about perfect.  It’s easily one of the top 3 films of 2011 for me (it’s fighting for that number 1 spot with ‘The Descendants’ and ‘Drive’, so stay tuned to see which work emerges victorious at the end of the year, or if something swoops in at the last minute for the top honor) and has stayed with me in the time after seeing it in a way few movies can.  It may be a masterpiece by McQueen, who directs and co-writes this film pretty much flawlessly.  A quick note about the NC-17 rating…Fox Searchlight made the absolute right decision putting it out with the rating.  There’s no satisfying version of this story that could have been done with cuts to make it an R.  They’re right in saying the rating is a badge of honor.  If any NC-17 film can change the stigma of the rating, this is the one to do it…

Brandon (Fassbender) is a New Yorker struggling with sex addiction.  To those who don’t know him, he appears to be your average yuppie Manhattan resident with a well paying office job and a nice apartment.  No one truly knows Brandon though, or they’d be horrified.  Life is mostly just getting from one orgasm to the next for him, whether it’s masturbating in the shower to start his day, going to do the same in the men’s room at work, or picking up women at bars afterwards with his boss David (James Badge Dale)…even hiring prostitutes in the evening.  Life is only about sex for him, and there’s no joy in it, either.  He’s able to keep it under control though, until his sister arrives, that is.  Sissy (Mulligan) is the exact opposite of Brandon, a cabaret singer yearning for affection where Brandon can’t handle it.  They both share an unsaid trauma from their childhood that has clearly affected them greatly, and their time spent together pushes them in some terrible directions.  Between Sissy pushing his buttons (and he hers) and his attempts at trying to have a real relationship with a co-worker (Nicole Beharie), the carefully organized existence that Brandon has cultivated is about to come crashing down on him.

It’s a shame (no pun intended) that Michael Fassbender is going to have to struggle to get an Academy Award nomination for this role, because he just plain deserves the Oscar for Best Actor.  This is the best performance I’ve seen since Mickey Rourke in ‘The Wrestler’ a few years back.  It’s a stunningly powerful piece of acting, and Fassbender does it mostly with his body and face.  During one particular sex scene, watch his facial expressions as he orgasms.  It’s not a look of pleasure, it’s a look of fear, pain, and regret.  Brandon doesn’t want to be addicted to sex, but he can’t help it, and it kills him on the inside, while taking him to some strange places on the outside he’d never consider going to otherwise.  Fassbender translates this perfectly to the screen.  As good as he was in McQueen’s previous film ‘Hunger’, he’s much better here.  As for Carey Mulligan, she’s perhaps even better than in ‘An Education’.  A perfect foil for Fassbender, they tell you so much without telling you anything.  When she does a heartbreaking rendition of “New York, New York”, it’s as if she’s pleading with the city.  If Mulligan can get a Best Supporting Actress nomination, she deserves to win too.  Both are giving incredibly brave performances, stripped naked emotionally and physically (our introductions to both characters involve them fully naked).  As for the supporting players, they’re all fine, but Fassbender and Mulligan take your breath away.

Steve McQueen solidifies himself as the most artistic director this side of Terrence Malick here, but this is a far superior work to the beautiful but flawed ‘The Tree of Life’.  McQueen directs the film in a way that makes New York City a character, but also an ominous presence, trapping this people.  It’s obviously shot on location and that helps Brandon as a character, as you see him know where to go to get his fix, and you believe it’s a real place.  The aforementioned song Mulligan sings or Fassbender’s many sex scenes are all shot in a unique and hauntingly beautiful way.  One particular scene is filmed in order to make it feel as though you’re a participant.  It’s just brilliant work.  McQueen’s direction deserves an Oscar nomination, as does the work of cinematographer Sean Bobbitt (as well as editor Joe Walker and composer Harry Escott).  The script he co-wrote with Abi Morgan is sparse but very effective.  Some might quibble that it ignores a backstory on why these two are the way that they are, but it hints enough that you can make up your own mind (child abuse, incest?) and that mystery benefits the movie.  The attention to detail is phenomenal and worth honoring.  This is a tough film, but a nearly perfect one.

I feel weird saying that I loved ‘Shame’, but I consider it to be easily one of the best works of 2011.  It deserves attention for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Original Screenplay, Best Film Editing, Best Cinematography, and Best Original Score.  It will struggle for any of these and likely miss out on most, but that’s just the sad truth.  It should get them all, but it won’t.

I was blown away by ‘Shame’.  Nothing can quite prepare you for what Steve McQueen, Michael Fassbender, and Carey Mulligan have in store for you.  It’s never exploitative, but it can be disturbing at times, so be aware of that.  A stunning work of art, ‘Shame’ is clearly not going to be for everyone, but if you think you can sit through it, you can’t consider missing it.  This movie is just that good.

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