I am quite mad at myself for taking this long to watch Steve McQueen’s Shame. When it came out in 2011, I had a brief understanding of what it entailed. The NC-17 rating was part of my knowledge and I had heard there was copious amounts of sex. Although true and true, I failed to gather what this film could do and the power it could hold. McQueen’s skillful style had not yet graced my filmic library with its presence and the talents of Michael Fassbender were only starting to cross my radar. Truth be told, the only thing linking my interests at the time was Carey Mulligan. Still, apparently that was not enough. Luckily time can be a healer of many things.
Shame‘s first turn on came immediately with McQueen’s omission of using opening credits. This creative choice is one I hope to exploit one day, for it forces the audience to pay attention immediately, in this case giving McQueen those few extra moments of establishing his character. Something that is essential to this story in particular, as the character of Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender) is everything.
The film chronicles Brandon’s slow deterioration caused by his sexual addiction and the unannounced visit of his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan). Yet, Brandon’s exterior is far from unnerving. He is towards the top of a successful company, his hours are flexible – it does not seem to matter when he is late or leaves early – and lives in a nice New York apartment. Most importantly, he gives no reason of inviting any suspicion towards his private life. It is only the audience that is given the rare glimpse of Brandon’s spiraling decisions. We are forced to watch what Brandon wants hidden. Even more, we are forced to watch what we would have wanted to stay hidden.
Fassbender’s portrayal of Brandon is at times painful to watch, only because of the honesty he injects into the role and the far-reaching skill he has as an actor. Fassbender sheds everything for this character – his happiness, his dignity, his clothes. He does not tread lightly for the sake of his character or the addiction, keeping reality his main objective by doing exactly what he believes his character would do. Watching this film now allows me to look back and see the mistreatment Michael Fassbender received at the Academy Awards in 2012. The list of actors nominated were all well deserved, but I cannot help thinking there was plenty of room for Fassbender’s performance. Look out for this actor, as I believe he will be holding that tiny golden man soon, but more importantly the characters he brings to life are always worth watching.
Equally intriguing was the specific filmmaking style of McQueen. Incredibly reminiscent of an Ozu or Linklater, McQueen prolongs his scenes for drastic effect. He stays consistent with this method throughout the film, allowing specific scenes to stand out. Sissy sings a slow and quiet rendition of “New York, New York” in a club with an emotional Brandon looking on – a close-up of her face fills the screen for one long continuous shot. These types of stylistic approaches bring to light the vulnerability of McQueen’s characters by accenting their actions. Then the viewer must do the rest and delineate the reasoning behind each one of these actions, raising the possibility of actually understanding Brandon and his sister’s characters.
The title says a lot about the film, setting the tone for how we are supposed to feel. It causes our minds to judge and confine Brandon’s character as “bad.” Yet, Shame breaks the mold, attempting to lead us away from this path, demonstrating how there is more to a person that goes beyond expression or feeling. As Sissy says, they are not bad people, they just come from a bad place.
Shame (2011) directed by Steve McQueen