Movie Review: Shame

By Stephen Rebello

The shattering study of despair and sexual addiction in Shame is anything but a cheap turn-on.

Director: Steve McQueen Rating: NC-17 Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures

No matter what you may have heard about the graphic eroticism and nudity in Shame, this shattering study of despair and sexual addiction is anything but a cheap turn-on. Built around a lacerating centerpiece performance by Michael Fassbender, this ferocious, bleak stunner directed by Steve McQueen (with whom Fassbender earlier made Hunger) is about a successful, thirty-ish, big business New Yorker who in private suffers from an all-consuming, crippling, insatiable need for sex.

His office and home computers are clogged with porn. Online sex models know him by his first name. Subway rides, a restaurant, a date, a routine day at the office, a night-time jog are subsumed by the constant, desperate, ultimately unfulfilling search for the next sex partner. Shot in tones of cool gray desolation and favoring long, elegant takes, Shame watches noncommittally as Fassbender’s character, a dead-eyed, hollow-cheeked vampiric Casanova, bangs a prostitute against the glass walls of his high-rise apartment. It also dispassionately notes how, during an uneasy date with a lovely, sexy new coworker (Nicole Beharie), he only becomes aroused when he notes her losing interest in him.

In a superb, wordless sequence aboard a commuter train, we see him flirt with and futilely pursue a beautiful woman who shows him her wedding ring. Again, her unavailability only makes him want her more. Well, for a second anyway. What could have become the stuff of black comedy or smutty sex farce instead becomes a stark, sad dissection of one man’s steep descent into hell. As the self-destructive, seductive hero, Fassbender, frequently stark naked emotionally and literally, gets used by writer-director McQueen to perfection.

Fassbender’s fearless performance is the stuff of which awards, nominations and critical raves are made, so long as prudery doesn’t make people go blind. He is well matched by Carey Mulligan as his lost, needy, broken lounge singer sister whose unwelcome intrusion into his obsessive world accelerates their mutual downward spiral. Their scenes together, which hint at a troubled family life, abuse and incest, are hypnotic - as is the movie itself.  Steely, sombre and tough to shake, Shame, is about as bold and brilliant a movie as you’re likely to see this year.


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