As the Oscars draw ever closer, I’m feeling more and more pressure to finalize some kind of top ten list for this year. Everyone else already has one, so shouldn’t I jump onboard that bandwagon?
But I have a problem. Every time I’ve seen something in theaters, it immediately jumps to the top of my list- I want to lavish unending, magnificent praise all over whatever I saw most recently and leave everything else in a dumpster somewhere.
I’ve been fighting it. Believe you me, I’ve been fighting it. And as a testament to that fight, I now present my review of Shame. It’s not, sadly, the capstone to 2000+ years of civilization, which is the conclusion my brain jumped to once the ending credits started to roll.
It is an intimate and deeply moving film, though. Why don’tcha hit “Continue Reading” and I’ll tell you more.
Shame tells a very simple story. It’s the tale of Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender), a compulsive sex addict who’s carved himself out a comfortable little niche in life where he can feed his unending desires, but never has to relate to a single person on a real, human level.
Now, as the film opens, getting acclimated to Brandon’s lifestyle takes very little time at all- the opening scenes show a collage of different little moments in Brandon’s everyday life, all of them fairly ordinary (waking up in the morning, going to work, etc.) but all of them bursting with cold, casual sexuality until you almost get numb to what you’re seeing onscreen. Brandon has countless sexual encounters in the film’s opening minutes, but they’re layered and handled in such a way that it never seems gratuitous. It only serves to show the total control his addiction has over him.
And this is all well and good, but the actual narrative doesn’t kick in until Sissy (Carey Mulligan), Brandon’s sister, invites herself over to stay at his place after a messy break-up. Shame wastes no time at all in telling us there’s something fundamentally wrong with Brandon and Sissy’s relationship- the first time they’re together onscreen she’s in the shower, stark naked, but neither of them seem uncomfortable in the slightest. And throughout the rest of the film the camera work highlights the unsettling, flirtatious nature of their relationship, lingering on how closely they sit together or an unsibling-like touch.
Now here’s where I segue into what, for me, was by far the strongest aspect of Shame- the camera work. This is a film where the two lead characters have motives and backstories that are largely implied rather than stated outright, and the camerawork has a slow, meditative feel that lends itself perfectly to this. There are countless times when Shame is content to just pick an image and stick with it- I can think of a handful of scenes where the camera doesn’t move at all for upwards of two or three minutes.
This kind of stuff works perfectly for getting the audience to really think about what’s happening onscreen. An example- early on in the film, Sissy, a jazz singer, sings a bleak rendition of “New York, New York,” and for the length of the entire song the camera stays right up in Mulligan’s face, only cutting to a reaction shot of Fassbender once or twice during the whole song.
This gets to be very slow, but the song’s pretty and Mulligan’s dolled up like a Hollywood starlet, so it’ll keep your attention the whole time (for the most part). However, as it starts to stretch on and Fassbender gets increasingly teary-eyed, my mind started to wander just a little bit. Just why is he crying? Is it just the beauty of the song? Is there something more? And is the focus on Mulligan’s skimpy outfit and Marilyn Monroe-esque looks trying to create some kind of sexual tension between her and Fassbender? The film raises countless questions about the relationship between those two, but never in an unclear way- the lack of clarity just emphasizes how unhealthy they are together.
So when things get awful (and I mean awful), all of the effort put into having such a realistic, unsettling, bizarre relationship pays off in a way that’s both heartbreaking and incredibly compelling, all while illustrating the cyclical nature of abuse and addiction.
And something else Shame does fantastically (that I couldn’t tie in to anything else) is music. Everything you hear in the film highlights what you’re seeing and feeling in a unique, clever way. Suspenseful scenes have upbeat, funky music. Agonizingly uncomfortable scenes have light, crisp piano music. At one point two wildly different pieces of music clash on the soundtrack just as Brandon’s ugly mood perks up at the temptation of binging on sex. A significant amount of the atmosphere in Shame comes straight from the soundtrack in the best possible way.
Well, there you have it. I really couldn’t recommend this more. It’s a small, simple story, but it’s told in an elegant, thought-provoking way, and the motives behind each character are nothing like the simplicity we see in the plot. Be warned, though: Shame is very graphic. Don’t take no kids to see this one, folks.
Oh, and for those who are curious, I think this one might just be #3 on my future top ten list. Although that could change at any time.
Thanks for reading everybody!