Note: This is a very difficult film to discuss without revealing some plot points that aren't readily apparent in the advertising of the film. Although I don't reveal any huge surprises, I do discuss certain instances from the film in a broad sense.
A man wakes up in his bed in the morning. He is just looking up at the ceiling. He appears empty as to not be thinking of anything. You can tell it from just one look at his face. After a while, he gets up and opens the curtains as light fills the room. He then goes into the shower so he can jerk off and bring himself to orgasm.
This is our introduction to the central character of Shame, Brandon, as played by Michael Fassbender. Fassbender has had an amazing year as he appeared in three other critically acclaimed films- Jane Eyre, X-Men: First Class, and A Dangerous Method. Now he is reteaming with the director Steve McQueen, who really helped to boost Fassbender's profile as an actor with McQueen's 2008 debut film, Hunger. Fassbender is constantly a riveting presence in this film as the sex addicted protagonist. This is man who is so disturbing and yet so empathetic and note that I don't say sympathetic. We are forced to follow him for this movie even if we really don't like him. I'm reminded of Scorsese's Taxi Driver where we follow a psychopathic racist and at certain points we might even be siding with or rooting for him.
Brandon is constantly engaging in sex acts that include hookers, one night stands, Internet porn, masturbation... and the list keeps going from there. It is interesting how sex is simply just his life. This is evident in one of the earlier scenes of the movie where Brandon and his boss, David (the energetic James Badge Dale), go to a bar to pick up women and David is constantly using every trick in the book to get these women as Brandon just sits there. The night ends with David having to take a cab home because he is too drunk while Brandon has sex under the highway with the woman who David spent his time talking to.
Another fascinating part from McQueen and Abi Morgan's (The Hour) screenplay is that the one time that Brandon actually trys to fall for and start a relationship with a woman... well let me stop there. What do you think is going to happen? Hopefully this movie sounds like it isn't going to be full of happy experiences. In fact, the relationship with the other woman in Brandon's life is even more devastating. As a sex-addict, Brandon requires privacy, but his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) shows up and needs a place to crash for a while and then a while longer and then an even longer while. Brandon doesn't get along too well with Sissy and yet he is actually quite similar to his sibling. It comes from a shared history they have that McQueen and Morgan continuously hold off on revealing until the opportune time. Even then there are still questions to be answered about the pair.
Like with Hunger, McQueen's stylized aesthetics add a whole other layer to our understandings of these people. From the perfectly lit New York City streets to the grimy subway cars to the club where Sissy sings "New York, New York" in a single continuous shot- the film is full of some of the most beautiful imagery that I found to be on par with the work I saw earlier this year in The Tree of Life and Melancholia.
The visuals, the pace, the script, and the portrayals all come together to reach an emotional depth that mixes the graphic and passionate nature of not only the sex scenes, but of the story that McQueen has chosen for us to inhabit for two hours. On the topic of the sex, it was assuring to see this movie treat intercourse as most movies should. Sex is a normal part of our lives. Why shy away from something that most of society partakes in even if it is in private?
There is a courageous (both in its execution and content) montage depicted at the end of this film. A descent in madness. The last fifteen to twenty minutes of this movie are some of the most painful that I've seen in a long time. It will probably prevent me from ever sitting through this movie again, but that is a good thing in this case. It means the intensity of my first experience will just sit with me. In short, I found this to be the most phenomenal film of the year. Breathtaking in a both good and bad sense.