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"Shame": A Movie Review from a Regular Gal

Updated on July 5, 2012

© B. L. Bierley 2012

Why on Earth?

Firstly, I would like to give a disclaimer. I am an addict. I’m addicted to writing. I think everyone has an addict buried inside of them. It might be chocolate that gives you that elevation of spirit that you can’t do without, or shopping or sports. Whatever it is, we each have one thing that we go out of our way to have. Some of us keep our addictions closer to the hip than others, but we’ve all got one. So in that spirit, I was drawn to watch a movie like this for the sheer curiosity of a look at someone whose addiction happens to be something that cannot be easily avoided, like writing is for me. I have fingers that find computers everywhere within my reach: the notes application on my smartphone, the same app on my iPad, my computer at home. I have notebooks in every nook and cranny of my life, and if I’ve ever been out of pens it is indeed a sad day for the economy. Outlets for writing are literally everywhere! A sexual addict has the same issues, only instead of just being addicted to something extremely common and available everywhere almost without censure, their locus of addiction is quite frankly a part of their DNA!

I am writing this open and honest review of this movie from the perspective of a woman. Did I watch the movie for a chance at seeing Michael Fassbender’s full-frontal nudity? I plead the fifth on the grounds that I might incriminate myself. For whatever reason, I watched the film. What I got out of the viewing was a bare and realistic look into the life of an addict as, to my knowledge, no one else has ever portrayed it. As this is a movie review, and not a catalogue of addiction, I will focus on three main points: the movie as the message comes across to me: the viewer, the authenticity and portrayal of the characters by the actors/actresses and lastly, my recommendation for the film as I perceived it. Let’s begin.

The Movie

Having watched “Shame” with an objective mind, I must say that I was riveted to the screen for the entire 101 minutes. Director Steve McQueen went there … texturally, metaphorically and literally. This movie shows the viewer a time in a certain man’s life when he has reached a pit of deepest despair and is only sinking further down into the bowels of his addiction. The main character, Brandon Sullivan, is a man who has reached a point in his life where he is enduring rather than actually living. You could imagine it’s a point where some might not survive as alluded to often by the equally damaged sister, Sissy Sullivan. Watching the events and evidence unfolding was difficult. Sexual addiction being shown in its most raw form this way is haunting. It’s an addiction that cannot be easily removed from the addicts’ everyday life. There were no points of levity in this movie. It was the stark portrait of a dysfunctional life.

The director’s openness and willingness to show every facet of this addiction is what makes for a fascinating journey as you move through this snippet of Brandon’s life. I’ll give you a short synopsis of what is shown. Brandon is a sexual addict. He’s a man who lives every minute of his life around his addiction. It’s his coffee in the morning, his midday escape in the restroom. Sex in its many forms threatens him at every turn. His addiction exposes him, taunts him and yet he gets absolutely no relief from its succor. From the beginning we see little hints that his addiction is endangering his livelihood. His computer is missing at work because of its needing to be scrubbed free of viruses and trash—we assume it’s from pornographic content, seen in glimpses at home where its ever present on his laptop computer.

Another telling fact is that Brandon doesn’t interact with people, even with his male counterparts, anywhere in his world. The women he knows are paid by the hour for services rendered be it at his home, online, or at a hotel. There is an occasional freebie with a strange woman he playfully flirts with and stalks on the subway, like a lion hunting a gazelle. And it only gets worse. As Brandon’s world is invaded by his equally tragic and damaged sister, Sissy, we see his carefully managed lifestyle begin to unravel. He’s been going through the motions up to that point, but his sister’s repetitive calls and unannounced arrival are the catalyst. Her presence triggers him to react. She’s inappropriate, and we get the impression that something happened to both of these lost souls sometime in the past. The director doesn’t mire the film down with pitiable flashbacks, however, he gives enough hard evidence for you to see that something has cracked the foundation of their lives in a way that no patch can repair it. They will fall apart, stone by stone, at some point.

When Brandon uses Sissy’s reappearance as a reason to try to behave normally, you get the sense that some form of countdown has just been activated. Brandon gets rid of all his “paraphernalia” and tries to have normal interactions with a woman, but he is awkward and strained. Despite his manifold attractiveness and success, he is unable to relate to common dating rituals. His attempt to date a woman he knows from work ends poorly because he cannot behave in a normal way with someone who sees him in his actual life. It’s obvious that he cannot believe that he deserves such a privilege and is thusly self-sabotaged. He slinks back to depravity to get the relief he seeks. When he chooses shady sources near the end, he is beaten, broken and figuratively on his knees at the mouth of hell before he hits rock bottom. And as expected, his sister is once again the trigger, this time the one that stops the spiral of self-abuse. We’re left with a tiny kernel of hope for better days as the movie ends.

Viewer Discretion is Strongly Advised

In watching “Shame” the scenes unfold much like a cardboard box falling apart in the rain. All along you know what’s going to happen, but there’s nothing you can do once the corrugated fibers are already wet. You just have to hope someone can come along and save what’s inside the box before it washes away into the sewer. The way the movie plays out, the viewer must wait for the tortured soul to drown in the water and hope that his contents are salvageable in the end. So how do you watch a movie where the main character is at the gut-wrenching precipice of disaster? That point where even heaving sobs of emotion cannot provide even a miniscule amount of relief? It isn’t easy, let me tell you! Shame was as much a character in this movie as either of the human characters being so artfully and honestly portrayed.

The Actors’ Portrayals

How do you play the role of such a wounded, raw human being at the lowest point of human suffering? Just ask Michael Fassbender and Carrie Mulligan.

The two main characters in this film are portrayed with heart-stopping, brutal accuracy. Michael Fassbender’s characterization of Brandon Sullivan could not have been more awe-inspiring. He dove into this character with teeth and claws and ripped up the screen! I can only imagine what sort of horror he had to channel to show the face of a man burning in a hell of his own making. You didn’t have to wonder what his character was thinking at any point in the film. In scenes without a word being spoken his character’s anguish and emotion were on the surface so believably raw it would make you cry for the poor boy inside the man. I seriously considered writing a letter to the production company and asking if they allowed Mr. Fassbender some counseling after the movie wrapped!

Not just with his emotions, Fassbender was incredible in his ability to put his body into this role. And despite what the media hype might suggest, the sexual acts being portrayed weren’t necessarily as blatant or as gratuitous as some of the more recent comedies I’ve seen. The sex scenes in this film weren’t about love or even enjoyment. They were about self-destruction. The sex in this movie reminded me of an organ-grinder and a poor monkey playing to get peanuts. Except when the bedraggled monkey got the measly handful and cracked them open he found that the shells were empty. And Michael Fassbender showed that empty neediness in every scene. I applaud him for taking such a role and owning it the way he did. This is what an Oscar winning performance actually looks like, in my honest and humble opinion. Too bad nobody thought to ask me.

Every human encounter in this movie was ritualistic and non-satisfying for the character—from his workplace, to his family non-bonding, to his loneliness when the afterglow faded. Even when he is in the throes of an encounter there is no joy in his rapture. Sex, in this instance, is just a means to an end. It is an insufficient fix, a temporary high that no longer gives the character what he needs. Most of the sequences are blurry and out of focus, the actors and actresses in them as anonymous as the acts. This was obviously purposeful to show how disposable those static characters are to Brandon as a person. The lone exception is the poor woman he attempts to date. At the end of their dates her needs are as unfulfilled as his are, and she cannot even comfort him because she cannot understand what is so very wrong in their attempt to consummate their relationship.

Not to be outdone, Carrie Mulligan as Sissy Sullivan shows us a fragile chanteuse who has no respect for boundaries, hers or anyone else’s. There are subtle hints of something lurking beneath the surface of her realtionship with her brother. The clingy child-like pain is very real the way she performed in those sequences. The volatility with which she puts this character into the frame is unbelievable. Again, I was really worried about this actress as she gave one of the most realistic performances of her career—and believe me I’ve seen a lot of her early work. She was good a good Isabella Thorpe in "Northanger Abbey", and better in her earlier "Pride and Prejudice" characterization of Catherine Bennett. But in this role, she was a woman with a horrible past and a bleak future—and she played it to the hilt. Bravo, Ms. Mulligan, bravo!

My Recommendation

I would recommend this movie to a select few people of my acquaintance. My children could watch this later on in life as an example of how NOT to live their lives. But that would have to wait until they were about to leave the nest. "See DaVelma, sometimes people objectify others for their own gratification! Don't get used by people for gratification! Just don't have sex until you're thirty and only when you're in a loving and committed relationship! And stay away from subways!"

Most of the rest of my friends and family wouldn't enjoy a film like this. I cannot say I enjoyed the film like I would a comedy or an action film-- this is not the kind of film you watch to be entertained. That would be weird, being entertained by someone (even just a character in a movie) in his worst moments. This movie is one of those you watch as a reminder of how much worse your life could be. I certainly came away thinking my gig wasn't so bad.

To the public at large, if you want a peek into the realistic hole of sexual addiction, this is the movie for you. If you want to see a life bursting at the seams with so much darkness and turmoil, where even those who love the addict are damaged so badly they can offer very little by way of support, watch Shame. It will work if you want a portrayal of any type of addiction really. Whether it’s sexual addiction, drugs or alcohol, the effects are essentially universal. This movie shows the loss of self and soul that goes hand in hand with addiction. After watching this movie you will know what hell looks like. I didn’t take a solid breath until the credits began to roll.

I applaud Steve McQueen for this eyes-open, uncensored portrait of this painful addiction. I joke a lot in this blog about being an addict. And I believe that as far as writing is concerned, I am incurable. But after watching this film, I thanked my maker that I don’t have such a debilitating monkey on my back.


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