Review: Shame (2011)

John-Paul Pierrot looks at Steve McQueen’s award-winning follow-up to Hunger, Shame.

Following his highly acclaimed debut feature Hunger (2008), Turner Prize winner Steve McQueen returns with Michael Fassbender in Shame, a provocative tale of sex addiction in contemporary New York. It makes for graphic but compelling viewing.

Enslaved to a habit of promiscuity and masturbation, Brandon (Fassbender), lives a solitary life apart from his sordid relationship with prostitutes and the occasional social drink with his chauvinist boss (James Badge Dale). Sedate from his corporate lifestyle, Brandon is a synthesis of a humourless Patrick Bateman and a modern-day Travis Bickle parading the subways, streets and clubs of New York stone-faced in search of his next conquest. He feels no remorse in his degeneration until he is forced to hide his secret when his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), arrives unexpectedly in his apartment and the severity of his obsession escalates.

This is sombre cinema about the need to feel true emotion. Despite his serial lechery, Brandon is unable to understand people on a humane level. His addiction replaces an emptiness but in only achieving a physical relief from these activities he alienates the people around him as his need for fulfilment becomes more and more explicit. He becomes reliant on pornography and transgressive sexual acts. He is tormented by his sister becoming jealous of her own sexual deviancy as she accepts the seedy advances of his vile boss. When he is tasked with genuine intimacy, with a corporate colleague, he is unable to perform. His descent into the obscene is climactic before a shocking denouement when he is unshackled from his void but the true emotion he feels is one of disgrace.

Shame is powerful film-making with weighty performances from Fassbender and Mulligan that confirms their eminence. McQueen approaches the subject with a sobering honesty, weaving a documentary style among steely frames. At times menacing but perpetually contemplative it will leave you pondering Sissy’s thought that, ‘We’re not bad people, we just come from a bad place.’

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