Not that Steve McQueen: Sex-Addict Movie is a Half Effort

City Pulse | November 28, 2011
Director Steve McQueen makes half movies. The sophomore follow up to his over-praised 2008 debut film "Hunger," about Irish republican leader Bobby Sands's prison bound hunger strike, reveals a coincidental lack of narrative rigor disguised in an unsatisfying minimalist approach. Such limited artistic coincidence promises to be confirmed as a damning pattern upon release of McQueen's next film "Twelve Years a Slave," which will also feature McQueen's exclusive pet actor Michael Fassbender. At least the director has an eye for talent. Sadly, the same can't be said for his storytelling.

For a film about a sex addict, "Shame" is an oddly stoic, preachy, and clinical affair. Fassbender plays Brandon, a hotshot businessman living and working in Manhattan. For all of Bandon's nude parading around his chic high-rise apartment, and engaging in sex with a prostitute when he isn't jerking off in whatever bathroom is handy, the character is not necessarily any more randy than your typical thirty something guy. He may be a tortured soul, but we never get enough insight into why.

The filmmaker states a heavy-handed theme line that gives the whole game away. Brandon's friend/boss David (James Badge Dale), who just cheated on his wife with Brandon's slutty houseguest sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) the night before, comments on "dirty" files found on Brandon's computer. David runs down a laundry list of the types of porn found that includes things like interracial creampies. David passes judgment about the "sick" kind of person who would look at such images. The dialogue comes across as insultingly disingenuous considering the film's context as an exploitation art movie. This naïve posturing seems pretentious and hypocritical.

Brandon has a self-destructive bent that he compensates for by making lots of money. Like his chanteuse sister, Brandon is damaged goods but we never find out what events in their childhood traumatized them so. Carey Mulligan wonderfully fulfills the film’s centerpiece when her jazz singer character sings a moody rendition of New York, New York. It’s the one time in the movie when everything crystallizes. We see inside Sissy as a needy manic depressive person with a tremendous gift for emotional expression. Brandon is her logical opposite, who funnels his inarticulate passion into a relentless quest for orgasms.

As the story inches toward its hackneyed climax of glaringly foreshadowed melodrama it collapses like a weakened erection under a heavy blanket. McQueen goes for a shock value collage of ménage à trois sexual debauchery that involves Brandon giving his best O-face while doing what he does best after returning from a visit to a gay sex club—closet bisexual, check. The sequence allows the audience to read whatever it wants into Brandon’s pained expression as he screws two women with primal abandon as if he were doing something original. “Shame” is an immature attempt at psychosexual drama with thinly sketched characters. Fassbender and Mulligan do a lot with a little, but there just isn’t enough narrative to support their brave performances. Compared to a similarly themed, but far better grounded, film like David Cronenberg’s “A Dangerous Method,” “Shame” appears as a piece of stunt exploitation filmmaking. Crossing the line into pornography never seemed so simultaneously safe and repressed.

Rated NC-17. 101 mins. (C-) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)

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