Sunday, December 18, 2011

Shame (2011) – Review

Review: Shame is dark, angry and unflinching. The film explores the effect that sex addiction has on a successful New York man, Brandon, and how his life (and routine) is disrupted when his sister (Sissy) shows up unannounced. At its core, this is a film built around a brilliant performance by its lead (Michael Fassbender), without which it would fail completely. Both Sissy and Brandon are damaged – but the audience not informed of why – and why is not important to this story. Writer-director Steve McQueen seems only interested in the immediate emotional toll of the addiction on Brandon, and how he seems to be completely disconnected from humanity. While there are glimpses at a normal life (and maybe even feeble attempts by Brandon for connection), he is a slave to his addiction and there is no pleasure in it. The film is affecting as it addresses pain in such a frank manner – it is right there for the audience, uninhibited. Plus, it is not veiled by reasons for the anguish Brandon feels – McQueen wants to look at the darkness straight on, without the stipulations for the audience to cling to and rationalize. As the film progresses, Brandon seems to become less and less human (even appearing as some sort of monster in one climatic scene which is the tail end of his decent seemingly deeper into the darkness – but what makes this film so haunting is that it is unclear if this is just an extreme episode or one of many, which seems to be the case). McQueen also unnervingly makes Brandon somewhat charming at moments, and even places moments of humor into the narrative – just enough to give Brandon a connection to the audience and enough light moments to relieve the tension momentarily. Sissy is the perfect character to crash into Brandon’s world. She is almost the complete opposite of Brandon. He does not want anyone to see, to really touch him on an emotional level. She is completely open with her emotions and intrudes on his world, in a sense making him look at himself, which he does not want to do. The heart of the story (and really the best moments) comes from the pressure that Sissy seemingly puts on him to be more normal, which comes crashing down. The narrative structure that McQueen uses is also interesting and works well with the material. While there is a character arc for Brandon, many of the scenes and sequences feel more like a series of clips of Brandon’s life, not a flowing moment by moment story. It is montage – piecing together specific moments creating the character and building the tension (though, the pacing is not going to work for everyone). But the rhythm that McQueen creates pulls in the viewer, and leaves them emotionally impacted (and this is the power of the film). The ambiguous ending (which seems to be especially popular among indies this year) puts the emotional determination in the hands of the audience (and is the perfect way to end it). Shame is graphic, but not because of the nudity – the emotional strain and look behind the curtain of a much darker psyche will affect the viewer (especially if you give yourself over to the film).

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Steve McQueen, two films in, has established himself as a filmmaker who is not afraid to dive straight into deep and dark emotional issues. As with Hunger, he does not marginalize the emotional weight of his subject (and thus, his films are not going to appeal to those looking for light entertainment, because Shame is anything but that). He is one of the great auteur filmmakers of the new generation. Harry Escott’s score is very good (here is a suite). It hits the right emotional touchstones but is not overwhelming and does not detract from the performances. It picks up on the sadness of the isolation in Brandon’s life, going hand in hand with the pain and anger he feels. Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography is gritty and places the narrative very much in the real world. I liked the long takes in the film, as they reinforce Brandon’s solitariness and allow the score to reinforce the emotions. Judy Backer’s production design also places the narrative in the real world, and is gritty as well. Much of the film is void of color, expressing the bleakness. As good as the film is visually, it is built completely on its performances. James Badge Dale and Nicole Beharie are good in their small supporting roles, but the two principle characters carry the film and almost all the weight. Carey Mulligan plays off-type bringing life but also a deep sadness to Sissy. She is the spark that ignites the narrative. Michael Fassbender gives what is probably the bravest performance of the year, completely giving himself over to the anger, pain and utter bleakness of Brandon. It is phenomenal work.

Summary & score: Shame is not a fun, entertaining trip to the movies, but for those filmgoers looking for an affecting piece of cinema this is a fearless look at sex addiction. 8/10

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