Functional, by Scott Nye
It’d be easy to tag Shame as a film about sex addiction, because, yes, it plays an awfully big role in it, and anytime any film tackles sex in a serious way, that’s all anyone is ever going to talk about. On top of which you have a superhero (Michael Fassbender of this year’s X-Men: First Class) and a young hot-on-the-scene actress (Carey Mulligan) taking their clothes off, which makes for a perfect storm of people wanting to talk about a lot of stuff that doesn’t really have much to do with the film, which I found to be of considerable substance beyond its, um…substance.
Fassbender plays Brandon Sullivan, one of those high-class, clean-cut, a-little-too-well-dressed white guys who works at an anonymous Manhattan firm that does something or rather, whose apartment is way too clean, but who has a hidden secret, that the movies love so much these days. While his secret isn’t quite of Patrick Bateman proportions, writer/director Steve McQueen (not that one) turns his sex addiction into something that seems almost as dire. When we meet Brandon, if he’s addicted, he seems functionally so. He pays off a hooker, masturbates frequently, and has anonymous hook-ups, but the most desperate he gets is following a woman he was flirting with on the subway, and looking a little disappointed that he lost her in the crowd. When he goes out clubbing, his friend is far more active in looking for women than he. Brandon sits back and more or less lets them come to him (which I guess is easy when you look like Michael Fassbender), which belies a degree of confidence, but in all the wrong areas – he knows he’ll eventually get his next hit. If not from this girl, then one of her friends. If not them, someone else. This is the addict who has become his own dealer, and he has his system to get by day-to-day.
His system gets a good deal complicated when his trainwreck sister, appropriately named Sissy (Mulligan), runs out of places to go and decides it’s time to crash with him. Though it’s easy to tell Brandon isn’t wild about this idea – and the mountains of porn he has stashed in his closet is as good a reason as any – he allows it, and slowly his world becomes unraveled. His descent starts to be a more even-tempered version of Requiem for a Dream, twice as harrowing because Fassbender and McQueen actually invest in this guy as a character (zing!). Fassbender’s achievement here is critical to the film’s considerable success; McQueen’s a big fan of the long take, and quite often we’re left peering into Brandon’s eyes, searching for the buried soul amidst sleepless nights and a constantly drained system. Brandon’s confidence isn’t an act – he knows exactly how to get what he wants, and puts no effort into obtaining it – but it’s just as much his escape. While he and Sissy’s past is only hinted at, her specific presence seems to unsettle him on a chemical level, in no small part because she shares his struggle.
If Brandon’s the functioning addict, Sissy’s the one who’s just started recovering. Mulligan can convey infinite sadness with one glance, and easily overcomes the initial image of her as an actress (young, beautiful, almost flawless) to show us that Sissy’s way past hitting rock bottom. She’s not a ball of emotions as much as a constantly-erupting volcano that’s as ecstatic to finally be spending time with her brother as she is thrilled to meet a new man as she is furious at her ex-boyfriend who won’t take her back or even much talk to her on the phone as she is forever swimming in a deep depression. Mulligan is one of the most intuitive actresses working today, and her total commitment here is revealed in Sissy’s unpredictability – we never quite know how she’ll react in a given situation because Mulligan herself seems open to that discovery organically. A lot of awards talk is justifiably surrounding Fassbender, but I really hope Mulligan doesn’t get lost in the process.
As the third man in this organization, McQueen guides all of this admirably. He opens the film with an extended eerie montage that instantly catapults us into Brandon’s ongoing, pervasive, grinding nightmare. There is a lot of sex in this film, but McQueen ensures right away that none of it will be the least bit appealing, and only get less so from there. Escape seems impossible – when Sissy takes up with Brandon’s boss in Brandon’s apartment, he goes on a run, but McQueen’s endless tracking shot keeps him centered, unable to totally escape, forever running down what seems like an endless block (and I know the streets in New York can be long, but this was a particularly keen location find). McQueen is one of the kings of the long shot that pulls you in deeper and deeper until the emotion is unbearable. Here he grants his performers a little more freedom than in his debut film, Hunger, using the handheld camera as a way to catch live behavior as opposed to the usual oh-man-it’s-handheld-what’s-gonna-happen-now set-up. It’s also just a gorgeous film, bright and colorful in a way that heightens the seedy underbelly without being terribly ironic about it.
And I’ll be honest, it’s an exciting film, in that rare way few other films can be. It’s tackling subject matter that is rarely addressed but critical to delve into in our culture (which uses sex as a means of comedy, entertainment, arousal, advertising, and a million other ends), and doing so in a mature, thoughtful way. It features the best work yet by, for my money, the two finest actors to emerge in the last few years, and it establishes its director as a permanent fixture, a guy whose every new film now matters. It’s ambitious in subject, theme, and emotion, but never indulgent; it’s not trying to make a “big statement,” but wisely focuses on how two very damaged people deal with their trenches. It’s bold and brash and it doesn’t care that it got an NC-17 rating (and it’s hardly the wildest NC-17 movie you’ll see, but it ain’t kidding about it either) – it just is what it is, and it takes it all the way.