After a steady, eventful night out some two years ago, I came home and turned on the TV as a means to curb my alcohol-inspired insomnia. I flipped channels for a while before stumbling across Hunger On Demand. After I pushed play, it took me roughly 90 minutes to regain consciousness. I didn’t pass out or fall asleep, mind you, but rather, I was quite simply taken away.
Hunger was unlike anything I’d ever seen. A nearly dialogue-free first act, a miraculous, 20-minute centerpiece conversation, impossible stunts and sound effects, committed acting on par with De Niro’s Jake La Motta; for 90 minutes, I sat completely enthralled, only moving my jaw when it occasionally dropped. I had never heard of the film’s director or its lead star, yet I was aware that more greatness would soon follow. A few days ago, my prediction proved true.
Shame is a masterpiece of modern cinema. Everything about it is perfectly in tune, cranked up to 11. Its editing is purposeful down to each single cut, its camera is steady and smooth until it needs not to be, its music is provoking but not forced, its script is indistinct yet oddly revealing. I could go on.
Shame tells the story of Brandon, a quiet, kind, successful New York businessman who is secretly addicted to sex. He picks up women in bars, is a regular to several hookers, frequents clubs, masturbates in bathroom stalls at work, watches porn while he eats dinner, and so on. All of this, the swift editing indicates, is part of Brandon’s daily routine. He’s a loner, trying to not let his torments get the best of him. When his solitude is eradicated by the unexpected arrival of his overbearing sister, Sissy, Brandon soon finds that he is forced to take on her demons as well, which he doesn’t exactly appreciate.
As much as I’d like to avoid discussing this, it appears to be simply unavoidable. Shame is rated NC-17 for depicting Brandon’s extra curricular actives with honest, unbiased candor. The few times I’ve seen sex addiction portrayed in films or on television, it’s usually done with gleeful sarcasm. Director Steve McQueen isn’t interested in making slight of Brandon’s affliction. Sex isn’t something Brandon desires or longs for, it’s something he needs. And, short of inflicting violence, he will do whatever it takes to get it. Basically, while Shame earns its NC-17 rating, there is nothing menacing about Brandon’s actions. I personally did not find anything in the film too shocking to bear.
London-born Steve McQueen (no relation to the actor), started as a still photographer, and boy can you tell. Watching Hunger, and especially Shame, I am reminded of the way Stanley Kubrick shot his films. If you were to pause a McQueen film at any given time, you’d have a breathtaking still image. The look of his films are clean and deliberate. He’s the kind of director that uses an extended, unbroken shot of Brandon running to evoke the character’s frustration. Or, in the film’s most technically flawless scene, he shoots a first date entirely in one take, pushing his camera in so gently that it’s almost unnoticeable to the human eye.
Since his starring role as Bobby Sands in Hunger, I’ve seen everything Michael Fassbender has done. While he’s been in some seriously crap films (Jonah Hex, Centurion), he’s managed to become one of the very best actors working in cinema today, if not ever. In addition to Hunger, the films Jane Eyre, Inglourious Basterds, X-Men: First Class, and especially Fish Tank, all contain perfect Fassbender performances. (For the record, I have yet to see Fassbender’s turn as Carl Jung in Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method.)
In Brandon, however, Fassbender finds his best character yet. He is in every single scene of Shame, and we do not for a millisecond grow bored of him. I could quite literally describe any one scene from the film to convey the brilliance of this performance, but there is one standout in particular that I beg, hope, plead earns Fassbender a seat at this year’s Oscar ceremony. Late in the film, there is an extended sequence of Brandon fulfilling his addiction. The scene ends with a prolonged shot of Fassbender’s face and for the first time, we realize that, like most addicts, Brandon is far from enjoying himself. He simply knows no other way.
If there has been a better, more harrowing, more fearless performance in a movie this year, then I certainly have not seen it.
Equally as fearless is Carey Mulligan, who plays Sissy in a way Mulligan has never played a film character before. Sissy is loud, crass, and a borderline manic-depressive. She lives in the moment, for better for worse. In every one of their scenes together, Mulligan and Fassbender evoke a lingering fear. You never quite know how he’s going to react to one of her outlandish remarks. The tension is, at times, nearly unbearable. The best performance I’ve seen Mulligan give was as Karin in an Off Broadway stage rendition of Ingmar Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly. With Sissy, she surpasses that performance, and then some.
Of the best films I’ve seen this year, three are fresh, daring dramas (Drive, The Tree of Life, Melancholia) and one is a glorious family film. It’s a bit early to tell if Shame should be ranked first among them, but it will certainly be damn close. Because of its rating, Shame is currently playing in a very small amount of theaters (find them here). I cannot fully articulate how important it is for you to see this film; to miss it would be to miss inarguable greatness. A