Wednesday, October 19, 2011
NYFF Review #6: SHAME
SHAME infuriated me. I can't blame this on the film's lead, Michael Fassbender, who delivers an undeniably physical performance as an NYC executive who's disinterested in anything that doesn't involve the stroking of his cock (and, in case you're interested, Fassbender has quite the member). I often blanched in fury at his blank stares, but I have to admit, Fassbender's quite good in this movie. You can feel his soul connection to co-writer/director Steve McQueen, with whom he did the vastly more affecting 2008 prison bio-pic HUNGER (though, for Fassbender's own health, I'd recommend he distance himself from the director, as he seems bent on driving the actor's body to a too-frail point). Also excellent here is Carey Mulligan, who punctures the lead character's emptiness as his effervescent, needy sister whose invasion of his world disrupts his steady routine of prostitutes, one-night stands, and internet porn sessions. She's a sweet presence, as she has quickly come to be in all the film's she's been in since her breakthrough, and she has a terrific extended play moment here where she sings the most drowsy version of "New York, New York" you're ever likely to hear. The moment where Fassbender's Brandon sheds a tear at her on-stage hurt (a hurt which we're never let in on) might be this empty movie's emotional high point.
My problem with SHAME lies in its barely-written screenplay (by McQueen and Abi Morgan). It shows, but never tells. Watching SHAME is like looking at a crime scene photo without being told what the crime was all about. Yeah, there's all the carrion. So what? Nearly nothing is new here. Predictably, this vacuous character named Brandon has a cold, sparce apartment, devoid of personality. You've seen AMERICAN PSYCHO? Yeah, like that. And we have Fassbender's unerring stare, which more often says nothing rather than everything (it's a slate that's decidedly TOO blank, which I DO have to blame on Fassbender). Glimpses into his work life and relationships make you wonder how he landed such a high-paying job in the first place, much less kept it (though Brandon seems to be on increasingly shaky ground here). All throughout the picture, I kept wondering why Brandon never realized he was just simply stupid; his lack of interest in anything other than sex is astonishing (I mean, even alchoholics are interested in more than just drinking).
Finally, there is the inevitable rock bottom--an addiction movie staple. There's a fine scene in which Brandon attacks his sister, demanding to know what she wants from him. I loved Mulligan's play here, in which she at first thinks it's a joke and laughs as he's pinning her down on an inevitably beige couch, and then fights back strongly, calling him a weirdo. Well, this transpires into the titular shame spiral, and McQueen's camera finally captures one yellowed, indelible image that's seared into me--Brandon's horribly pained face as he tries (and probably fails) to reach orgasm while schtupping two exotic girls in tandem. The end isn't far off from here, and you can probably predict what will happen.
But, again, so what? SHAME is one of those movies that's all about pushing buttons. They're not those Spielberg buttons, of course. They're the Solondz buttons. And they suck. There's only the slightest revelation for the main character ("Shithead"), and even when the final scene comes, we con't be sure if he's really moved forward, because we don't see Brandon actually reaching out to another for help. McQueen's movie makes it seem as if we can all handle the problems of addiction alone. But this is an untruth. If his main character had any sense, he'd remember back to an almost perfect date he has with a co-worker (played with zest by Nicole Beharie), and at least come to the slightest realization that this is what's he's been looking for (their dinner date scene is SHAME's pinnacle, punctuated beautifully by a pesky waiter who continually inturrupts their smooth rapport). I'm sorry, but being in the throes of addiction affords you a lot more opportunities of self-revelation than SHAME dramatizes. The film screams out for another character that has their feet on the ground.
I know a lot of people are loving SHAME for its supposed bravery. But if the sex in the film had been replaced with, say, heroin, I think we'd all see McQueen's movie as the "whatever" sham that it is. Yeah, it's a challenging movie, and maybe one worth seeing for those who want to see everything, including the bottom. But I nearly hated it, mainly because I thought it was boring.