In his exquisite second film, Shame, writer and director Steve McQueen captures the intoxication and irrepressible yearning caused by addiction. Like in Hunger, his first masterpiece about a hunger strike in a prison, McQueen examines the limits of the human psyche. This time he has chosen an intriguing but often taboo subject: sex addiction.
Michael Fassbender is triumphant in his poignant portrayal of Brandon and his aggressive addiction. Brandon attempts to keep his erotic pursuits removed and private from his seemingly glossy, successful professional life. But when his dysfunctional sister Sissy (Mulligan) moves in with him, his life begins to unravel. Fassbender may have set the bar extremely high, but Mulligan’s performance does not disappoint. Throughout the film, the audience is captivated by the mental deterioration of both siblings.
McQueen’s unique artistic vision is met with cinematography that beautifully complements the narrative. Conscious use of color and light and a backdrop of heavy breathing makes this film impossible to view passively. From the first scene, the pulse of the film captures the audience and refuses to let go.
This raw study of sex addiction could have skewed into pornographic territory, but under the careful direction of McQueen, the erotic scenes are deliberate and necessary moments in the gritty drama. It is a tribute to the talent of McQueen that the often shocking material never comes off as existing purely for shock value.
Shame’s authentic and graphic depiction of sex addiction most certainly deserves its NC–17 rating. However, Shame presents an addict trying to hold it together while everything falls apart, and by the end of the film it is clear that this is a story about addiction, not about sex.
This isn’t to say that the film is flawless. Heightened drama during the final minutes threatens to cheapen the intensity that pulses throughout the plot. Regardless, the final scene of Brandon shakes the viewer up enough to confirm our attachment to this highly tragic character.
Shame wears its NC–17 rating as a badge of pride, and its distributor, Fox Searchlight, will bravely release it unedited. Unfortunately this rating will limit where it can play, but Shame is absolutely worth the trek. A dark treasure, the film is sure to wow critics and leave audiences breathless.
Directed by: Steve McQueen
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan
See if you liked: Requiem for a Dream (2000)
Rated NC–17, 101 min.