In the early moments of Shame, we learn that sex addict Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender) has a huge member, as if nature was instructing him in the way he ought to go and he was just following orders. And what nature begins, art perfects: by the time we meet him, he’s pared his life down to avoid anything that might distract him from attending to his one great need, whether with whores or bar pickups or his own right hand in the office men’s room.
His apartment is clean and white and blank except for the necessary equipment — an operating theater for sex. (The medical atmosphere is no accident: for Brandon, sex comes off as a rather joyless affair, a condition — the proverbial itch — that requires attention.) His body is lean and fit for the task at hand. He avoids long-term relationships, because we all know that there’s no such thing as sex after marriage. (Indeed, when he does attempt the traditional date-before-disrobing, he finds that even the minor intimacy provided by small talk can be...deflating.)
The problem for Brandon is that nature has also provided him at least one long-term relationship that is ready at hand and unavoidable: his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan). Mind you, he tries to avoid it. From the get-go, we see him ignoring her pleading voice on his answering machine: “Brandon, where are you? Hey, it’s me. Pick up.” But Sissy is not one to be ignored, and it isn’t long before she shows up in his apartment — to be precise, in his shower, naked and needy and messing up his life. And not simply by her presence — Sissy has some sexual issues of her own to deal with.
Well, maybe “deal with” is a little strong. There isn’t a lot of dealing here, just a lot of manifesting. Shame succeeds less as a work of dramatic fiction than of cinematic pathology. Sort of an illustrated medical casebook — a clinically minded viewer might be tempted to check off the symptoms as they appear. Which is not to say that the illustrations are unaffecting. For starters, this is sexual addiction we’re talking about, and the film is not overly shy in its depiction (though it limits its treatment of the astonishing world of online porn to a brief come-on and a verbal list).
Director Steve McQueen has a fine eye for detail — such as a warped reflection in a dirty mirror when Brandon hits his low point — and an even finer feel for mood. His depiction of New York is very much a city full of millions of lonely souls packed close together. A lengthy, silent flirtation on the subway is one of Shame’s more affecting scenes — a face in the crowd. Fassbender’s performance is all brittle control, and it’s almost frightening when he shatters. Mulligan’s Sissy puts a brave face on her damage, and when she finally confronts her brother, we get a glimpse of the humanity that pathology is supposed to serve.
Colin Farrell and Keira Knightley are passing one another on the ladder of watchability. Gone from Farrell is the abrasive petulance. In its place is a polished assurance that seems mixed from Brad Pitt’s intensity and jawline, George Clooney’s soulful brown eyes, and the charisma of a young Mel Gibson. Knightley, on the other hand, seems to have wasted away to pure bone structure. The look works okay for her role as a supermodel, but there are times you worry that the weight of her lustrous hair will send her toppling. Plus, if she ate something, she might have a little more, you know, energy. I’m leading with a lot of talk about the way the leads look because the camera spends a lot of time looking at them.
Moving on to the rest of the cast — and the cast is what carries things in this hoary story of an ex-con trying to make a break with his past. “Where are you going to go?” asks his old buddy, the collection man, not expecting an answer. And what a collection man — Ben Chaplin, all greasy locks and gutter toadying. Chaplin works for Ray Winstone, who ups his usual menacing sweetness with a little sexual something extra. Think gay, evil Burl Ives. But the real prize is David Thewlis, positively luxuriating in the role of drugged-up hanger-on to Knightley’s gossamer coattails. “You’re not allowed to do more than one thing,” he intones, “which is why a polymath such as myself prefers to do nothing.”
Along the way, there are ruminations on celebrity, a man cut loose from the ties that bind, and a powerful lesson in not leaving loose ends. Something for the movie poster: a stylish good time.
New Year's Eve
Another holiday processed, wrapped, and shipped to market. You can decide if you want to see New Year’s Eve by looking at the poster. Do you want to see a movie that has Michelle Pfeiffer, Zac Efron, Robert De Niro, Halle Berry, Jessica Biel, Hilary Swank, Jon Bon Jovi, Katherine Heigl, Sarah Jessica Parker, Abigail Breslin, Ashton Kutcher, Lea Michele, and Josh Duhamel, supported by Seth Meyers, Sarah Paulson, Carla Gugino, Sofia Vergara, Ludacris, and Cherry Jones, with cameos by Cary Elwes, Common, Matthew Broderick, Alyssa Milano, James Belushi, and Ryan Seacrest?* Well, then, we’ve got just the thing for you.
Still not sure? What if we tell you that the characters’ stories swirl around one another and eventually collide in surprising ways, even as they all revolve around the dropping of the big ball in Times Square on New Year’s Eve? That there will be birth, death, marriage, romance, hopes, dreams, laughs, tears, and zippy one-liners (“There will be more celebrities here than rehab!”)? How about mother-daughter drama (“The world is just getting good. I want to start living in it — you used to!”)? Father-daugher reunions (“I made so many mistakes — you weren’t one of them.”)? Ethnic shenanigans (“In my country, when a man gets down on one knee, it’s because he wants to get married or he’s been shot.”)? Zany antics (a woman in labor taking a pedicab to the hospital)? Sold? Then get going! Like the clock says, tempus fugit!