Shame is pretty much just like every other movie ever made about addiction…only a whole lot sexier. That’s because the addiction in question here is sex addiction. It’s not a film about whether or not sex addiction is even a real problem, though that is a debate – to this day, the American Psychiatric Association refuses to consider it an actual mental disorder, and have once again rejected it for inclusion in the upcoming DSM-5. Then again, I doubt many in the APA would have as easy a time getting a different hot chick to bang them every night as Michael Fassbender does in this movie.

If you read that last bit and thought, “hey, that actually sounds kind of awesome,” then you’re just like me, and might share some of the same problems I had with the film. The story is about Brandon (Fassbender), a 30-something New York yuppie completely obsessed with getting his rocks off, whether it be from constant random hook-ups, prostitutes or online porn. Unfortunately for him, his carefully constructed world of sexual thrills is thrown into turmoil by the sudden arrival of his free-spirited sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan), who crashes at his place and generally starts making Brandon’s life miserable.

I know any “addiction” is, by definition, a problem, and I know I’m supposed to get that this is a bad thing for Brandon. I know this because at one point he cries about it in the rain. But, really, it doesn’t seem all that bad for much of the film’s first half. Sure, some of this is just the crass part of me jokingly saying “well, who wouldn’t want to hook up with a bunch of hot chicks if they could?” But seriously, it really doesn’t seem to be negatively affecting his life all that much. He has a good job, and an OK apartment (at least by NYC standards, and certainly for what he needs it for). Yeah, you could point out that he doesn’t seem to have any real friends (though he does clearly have work associates that he hangs out with) or a genuine social life, but – then again – that’s true of a lot of driven professionals out there, most of whom don’t have sexual addictions. Heck, if anything, I’d say Brandon actually has a slight edge over guys like that – at least he’s having some fun every night.

Still, this is a movie about the perils of addiction, and so it has to show us that it is a bad thing for Brandon. So it does so in a fairly predictable way – by going the “he can’t make an honest human connection” route. Beyond the obviously damaged relationship with his sister, there is also a scene that shows Brandon unable to “get it up” with the one girl who might actually be his best shot at a real love connection. Or, at least, I think that’s what the scene is going for, but it’s handled pretty poorly, in my opinion. For one thing, we’re not given any real reason to think this girl represents any such actual connection for Brandon. She’s a co-worker that he continuously stares at and – one assumes – fantasizes about, but how does that make her any different than any of his other conquests? When he finally does take her out on a date, he actually tells her in quite the matter-of-fact manner that he is not looking for any sort of long-term relationship. So why is he unable to perform with her? I think the movie is suggesting an aversion to tenderness, but it’s misplaced – when the two are finally about to get it on, she seems just as down for the same sort of sudden, hot sex that is his norm. It’s not like she asks him to stop and light some candles or anything. It’s a random mid-afternoon hook-up. There’s no clear reason Brandon can’t do it, other than this is the point where the movie wants us to go, “ohhh, he has a problem and it’s worse than he thought. I feel so bad for him.” It’s manipulative and simple-minded.

Thankfully, this isn’t really a total deal-breaker in terms of the film’s quality. Sure, the story here is pretty “been there, seen that” when compared to numerous other movies about addiction, but then, a lot of my favorite movies this year – Drive, Hanna, Warrior – have been stories we’ve seen done before, just done really well. And, yes, Shame is done well. It’s excellently directed by Steve McQueen (though not as instantly compelling as his previous Fassbender collaboration, Hunger), with a number of haunting sequences and beautiful use of music. And the performances are fantastic. Fassbender is every bit as good as you’ve heard. It’s a role that only stuffy, puritanical American critics will call “brave,” but it’s still a powerful performance, and even if I wasn’t buying into the script’s shortcuts to signify his downward spiral, I’ve got to admit that Fassbender makes every moment feel real and devastating.

Meanwhile, Carey Mulligan is also tremendous as his also-clearly-screwed-up sister. While watching this film, I realized that I have yet to see Mulligan play the same sort of character twice, and she has been great in every performance she’s had so far. This is another one. It’s a tough character to play, I think, as Mulligan has to be sympathetic while also somewhat pathetic – you need to feel for her, even as you understand why Brandon would find her so infuriating. There’s an undeniable incestuous undertone to their relationship, a factor which makes a lot of sense if you pay attention to some of the clues regarding their history. I like that this was handled subtly by both actors, who convey the idea of their shared fucked-up past just enough for you to partly understand how they both got as messed-up as they are. Their scenes together are the film’s clear highlight. Well, that and all the boobs.

So Shame is a good movie, hindered only by the feeling that it could have been a great one. I feel like if the film was a little more willing to spend some time in the dingier corners of Brandon’s addiction, and perhaps allow us more of a peek into his head so as to make it clear how much all of this is truly getting to him, it’s message might have been better delivered and made the whole thing seem a tad bit more worthwhile. As is, it’s still certainly worth seeing for the performances of the two leads and for a handful of striking scenes that will stick with you. And no, I’m not just talking about raunchy sex scenes…though there are a few of those, too.

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