Sex is one hell of a drug.
Shame is about a single, successful businessman living in New York City who keeps up appearances as a model human being to everyone who knows him. But behind closed doors, he’s a bonafide sex addict whose life has been all but consumed by his constant carnal cravings. Up until now, he’s done a bang-up job of keeping things under wraps, but then his sister shows up unannounced, moves onto his couch, and begins complicating things with his horny boss. Unable to kick her to the curb since she has nowhere else to go, our closet nympho finds his philandering ways increasingly challenged by the needs of the only family he has left.
And so marks my very first NC-17 theatergoing experience. Even got carded and everything. It’s not that I’ve been actively avoiding NC-17 movies since I turned the big one-eight, they’ve just they’ve never been all that easy to find. Call me crazy, but I’m guessing that’s because the rating’s considered a scarlet letter for any studio looking to make a buck, and I also happen to live in a country that’s more freaked out by the birds and the bees than good old-fashioned torture porn. With that being said, thank God for writer/director Steve McQueen’s insistence on breaking out the birthday suits, going for the gusto, and making the movie he wanted to make. In a world where it’s easier to just make the masses happy by sugarcoating the naughty parts, it takes balls to make a movie like this. Then again, we’re all adults here, it’s not like we’re meeting up with Larry Flynt to go watch Deep Throat 2000, and let’s not kid ourselves, we can handle it.
Nevertheless, when you see a movie like this, you expect things to get a little awkward, and while the one guy who walked out halfway through would probably disagree with me, the experience went smoother than planned. Don’t get me wrong, Fassbender’s fassbender is on full display here and when he starts getting down to business, McQueen doesn’t leave a whole lot to the imagination. But by the same token, it’s tasteful, it’s purposeful, and it works because it’s bold. Although at the risk of sounding like the real-life inspiration for this movie, I couldn’t shake the feeling that McQueen was holding back punches. It begins aggressively and eventually spirals downward on the same wave, but as much as I can praise this movie for the things it does well, the lasting impression I was left with was how confused and unfocused it felt. Whether it’s the various plot elements and characters that seem initially vital to the story yet fizzle out half-an-hour later never to be addressed again, or the semblance of a plot that’s ultimately fueled by one melodramatic, predictable turn after another, I kept finding less things to like and more things to be bothered by.
It’s not that I was disappointed and it’s not that I’m against movies that don’t spell everything out for me each step of the way, I think it has more to do with my reaction to McQueen’s first film, Hunger. If you haven’t seen it, Hunger is one of those movies that’s as easy to appreciate as it is tough to handle. McQueen uses a lot of the same techniques here, like placing a heavy emphasis on words unspoken and lengthy stationary shots of two people talking or someone performing a seemingly mundane action that most directors would opt to cut away from. In Hunger, these signatures added an extraordinary amount of gravity to the finished product and made for some of the most memorable moments a movie that was filled to the brim with them, but I didn’t get that with Shame. I wish he had cut away from Carey Mulligan singing her entire sad bastard version of “New York, New York,” I wish he had cut away from Fassbender going for a jog across half of Manhattan after being sexiled from his apartment, and I really wish there hadn’t been so much damn laughter in the audience.
My problem wasn’t so much listening to everyone laugh when Fassbender’s character, Brandon, was being funny, it was when everyone else in the movie tried their hands at comic relief that struck a nerve. Brandon can pull off being the comedian because it betrays his true colors and makes you like him despite his faults, but as soon as random waiters start making awkward jokes about wine and everyone around me starts busting a gut, it throws the tone clear off the tracks. That one’s as much a fault of the audience as it was the film maker, but it took away from something that should have stayed serious.
And then there’s Michael Fassbender, and he’s just as great as he’s always been. Like I said, the guy doesn’t hold anything back from a physical standpoint (let’s just get it out of the way: the dude is packing,) but the same is true in respect to how emotionally vulnerable his performance is. Brandon is a complex guy, and in true Steve McQueen form, his actions – or lack thereof – speak far louder than anything that comes out of his mouth. He’s like Patrick Bateman in the sense of his being trapped by his own demons, unable to get out no matter how hard he tries in one direction or other, only his weapons of choice are an endless supply condoms and a black belt in the art of eye-fucking. I love that about his character and how this tortured soul living in a personal prison is the driving force of the story. We’ve seen our fair share of hopeless junkies and bloodthirsty madmen, but sex addicts are news. The nice thing is that this is probably the role that’ll put him on the map he should have been on three years ago for his turn in Hunger, the bummer is that it’s taken this long for the public to wise up. Just as it takes balls to make a movie like this, it takes arguably even bigger ones to be in a movie like this.
And Carey Mulligan’s also good in a lot of the same ways as his sister, Sissy. Fassbender is a hard act to follow is all.
Look, I liked Shame and I was awfully close to giving it a 7. It’s a very interesting perspective on addiction, I wish more film makers could muster up the courage to make sexually charged, important movies like this, and it also happens to have a fantastic little score to back up McQueen’s skills with the camera. I won’t argue with anyone who would rank it higher, it just didn’t do much for me from an emotional standpoint and felt all too familiar for something so brazen. But at least I came away with a decent story from the experience…
In a successful effort to lighten the mood once the movie ended, my friend leaned over and asked us, “So I take it that was just like The Muppets?” Naturally, laughter ensued. As we started to leave the aisle a few seconds later, a woman behind us (who either didn’t hear the joke or wasn’t a fan of ours to begin with) asked her male companion, “Why were they laughing?” Because buzzkills travel in pairs, he proceeded to raise his voice and responded, “They’re probably a bunch of 19-year-olds who are too uncomfortable with their own sexuality to be mature about the movie.” Being in a state of disbelief that someone would indirectly call me out from six inches away as though I were Casper, the Horribly Immature and Generally Loathsome Ghost, I decided to let it slide. But as fate would have it, he happened to walk right by us just minutes later as I relayed the story to my friends who didn’t hear it first-hand and we all laughed at his epically snooty comment as he hung his head in shame. An unintentional revenge is better than no revenge at all.
Freakin’ New Yorkers, man.