The dual-review film criticism site: first a spoiler-free review, then an in-depth Alternate Take.

Reviewed by John Bleasdale.

Director Steve McQueen
Length 101 mins
Certificate 18 / R
Rating **********
Filmmaking: 5  Personal enjoyment: 5

Photo from the article Trailer.

Brandon (Michael Fassbender) is a young, successful New York executive living the kind of fluff-free Spartan existence that Edward Norton’s character dreams of in Fight Club (1999). However, all is not well. Brandon is in the grips of sex addiction, which he feeds by hiring prostitutes, masturbating to an extensive porn collection, visiting websites, picking up strangers, and generally going at it whenever he can. He’s a shark, cutting through the city’s waters, sensitive to the slightest of movements, of tremors. An ordinary ride on the subway becomes heavily charged with sexual electricity when he exchanges glances with a woman sitting opposite him.

You might say Brandon is a functioning addict. There is a hiccup at work when his computer stops working because it's jammed up with pornography, but with his affluence, confidence and charisma, one feels Brandon could continue along this trajectory for as long as he wants. Despite our ostensibly liberated society, it is still surprising to see someone so single-mindedly pursuing orgasms as the be-all and end-all of existence. At least initially, Brandon does not seem to warrant our sympathy, or even particularly want it. In fact, though, there’s something almost admirable and courageous about the endeavour, especially when contrasted with the seedy hypocrisy of his boss, who insists on recruiting Brandon as a wingman when he goes cruising for extramarital shenanigans.

Into this controlled experiment of a life enters Sissy, Brandon’s sister, played by the ubiquitous and excellent Carey Mulligan. Her innocently disruptive presence knocks Brandon’s life - and specifically his sex-life - into a cocked hat. Her more conventional promiscuity, which seems to be based on a series of hopeless relationship, risks affecting his professional life when she starts an affair with Brandon’s boss. It will lead to a dangerous unravelling of what has been so tightly protected, as the firewalls between Brandon’s private obsessions and public façade begin to crack.

In only his second feature as a director, Steve McQueen has achieved a remarkable assurance. Also starring Fassbender, then as the IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands, Hunger (2008) was a work of brilliance. Eschewing the obvious, McQueen finds beauty in a hellish ugliness and poetry in the most intransigent politics. Carried over from his debut, Shame features some very specific technical effects, as well as a refusal to conform to conventional notions of storytelling and filmmaking. He fills his frames carefully, allowing some telling background detail, some graffiti or subway advertising, to comment on the action of the scene or the characters.

McQueen holds his long shots, turning the spectator’s gaze into a fixed, enquiring, and often uncomfortable stare. A shot of Carey Mulligan’s face in close up as she sings a surprisingly touching version of ‘New York, New York’ has already been cited in many reviews, and will probably be the take-home moment of the film. But the long take is also used expertly and less obviously in other parts of the film and to differing effects. When Brandon goes on a first date with a co-worker, McQueen’s permits the scene to develop in real time as awkward small talk, interrupted by a comically insistent waiter, gives way to some more serious argument and a credible coming together. At other points, the style has a more straightforwardly aesthetic origin. A long tracking shot of Brandon jogging through New York as he tries to burn off some excess energy and escape the uncomfortable situation in his apartment immerses the viewer in the city at night. Brandon will run until he is stopped, and whether he is running away or running to, or he is just running, is ultimately up to us to decide.

This review was published on January 18, 2012.

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