There’s a better version of Shame on the cutting room floor. Somewhere in the hours of unseen footage shot by Director Steve McQueen exists a film that lives up to the hype. A film less ambiguous, with a concrete arch, and character exchanges that don’t feel piecemeal. A film less dependent on intuition and more respectful of storytelling. A film not so thoroughly entrenched in a mood. And that would be a hell of a film to see, because Shame is built on some pretty powerful stuff as it is. The performance of Michael Fassbender will certainly get everyone talking, and almost as certainly garner a nomination. And there are things McQueen does as a director that prove he deserves the job. But the unfortunate reality is that Shame is only some of what it should have been, and simply not as good as it could have been.
Brandon Sullivan (Fassbender) is a handsome winner, with a stylish New York City apartment and a GQ wardrobe. He’s in good with his boss David (James Badge Dale), an obnoxious loud mouth who parties every night. He holds doors for old ladies. He is a success. Brandon is also addicted to sex. He spends his money on prostitutes and pornography, jerks off at work, scoffs at the notion of a fulfilling relationship. His life is a high wire stretched between his crippling addiction and the maintenance of his daily persona. When his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) blows into town, Brandon’s grasp slacks, and his stormy relationship with her becomes, as he puts it, “a burden.”
When the MPAA shackled Shame to an NC-17 rating–an action generally considered to be a film’s death knell, at least in box office terms–most of us bristled. The MPAA has a notorious history as a foolish and inconsistent body, particularly when it comes to films featuring any sort of graphic sex. In all fairness, Shame is one of the most gratuitously sexual films to ever be given a wide release; in addition to Fassbender’s much discussed full frontal nudity, there is a vast array of simulated intercourse to be offended by, most of it explicit enough to blur the line between real and fake. But an MPAA that decries the sex portrayed in this film as abhorrent with an NC-17 rating, yet feels the graphic violence featured in, say, Saving Private Ryan is standard R-rating fare, can’t claim objectivity. What’s truly important to understand about Shame, however, is that the film (and the film’s director) isn’t simply getting off on boundary pushing. Yes, you’ll find some immensely graphic moments here, but you’ll also see some very compelling intimacy depicted in entirely non-sexual moments. One scene in particular finds Sissy singing a halting, melancholy version of “New York, New York,” the camera lingering on an extreme close-up of Carey Mulligan through nearly the whole performance. Any other film would allow five, ten, maybe twenty seconds of this scene to go uncut. Steve McQueen meanwhile, is utterly devoted to moments just like this one, and insists that the audience take full part in their unfolding. One of the most interesting things about Shame is the way it finds uncomfortable intimacy everywhere. Whether it’s the quavering voice of a singer or the upsettingly awkward dialogue of a first date, McQueen is intent on making a movie about intimacy, and all of its coarseness.
Unfortunately, this adherence to showing intimate moments in full is also what hurts the film the most. A lot of time is spent showing us what the characters are feeling, and illuminating Brandon’s anguished contemplation, that Shame ends up more of a character study than a finished story. Admittedly, McQueen would be hard pressed to find an actor as worthy of this style of filmmaking as Fassbender. He is a mesmerizing presence, and never unable to handle the camera’s unblinking scrutiny. But a film about addiction deserves more than this passive approach to storytelling. A character like Brandon Sullivan should go on a journey with more to offer than a downward spiral, and a relationship as complex as the one between he and his sister needs more development than the handful of volatile exchanges offered to us. There’s a lot to be gained by cultivating a true three-act structure here, and not a whole lot to lose. Sure, the film is a stylistic success, and McQueen’s portrayals of sex and intimacy are powerful in a way most films can’t begin to compete, but a film that works best as an exercise is always going to be annoyingly incomplete.
If you feel you can stomach the salaciousness of it, then Shame is worth your time. In a year where he has turned in multiple excellent performances, this seems like the one Fassbender is most likely to get a nomination for, and he unquestionably deserves it. And McQueen is surely a director worth having on your radar, his devotion to honestly and style a refreshing, albeit frustrating quality. Shame is a gauntlet you’ll be thinking about for days afterward, and a landmark for the NC-17 rating. But don’t expect to see the best movie of the year. Don’t even expect it to leave you satisfied.