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Entries in Shame [2011] (1)

Monday
Jan232012

Shame (2011)

Dull-frontal

Shame feels like it should have come out in 1996. With its meandering storyline; film-school-precious camera tricks that alternate between interesting and awful; and an NC-17 rating that guarantees most people will see it on video, director Steve McQueen's chilly isolation opus plays like the off-brand indie you skipped in favor of Trainspotting.

The film stars Michael Fassbender as Brandon, a handsome, single New Yorker who spends his days surfing the Web for porn and his nights trolling social scenes for the real thing. His sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), comes to stay with him after a falling out with her boyfriend. Though she claims to be catching her breath before moving back to L.A., she quickly settles in and begins seeing Brandon's married-doofus boss, David (James Badge Dale), and looking for singing gigs around town.

Brandon encounters Marianne (Nicole Beharie), a new co-worker who knocks him off his predatory game by insisting on a date. At dinner, she engages him in conversation, which leads to a minor quarrel when he reveals a lack of faith in relationships. Brandon fails to seal the deal, but pops up in Marianne's office the next day and whisks her away to his apartment for some hot, afternoon sex. She gets into it, but her initial challenge to his masculine authority, apparently, renders him impotent. She leaves. Within a couple hours, he's banging a prostitute against the glass walls of his panoramic-view bedroom.

I've injected a lot of information into that synopsis, which the film itself did not. I don't know that Marianne "insisted" on anything. The time that passes between Brandon and Marianne's date could have been a day; it also could have been a week. And the rebound girl might have been a prostitute--earlier, we see Brandon actually pay for sex--or it could have been someone he ran into while picking up his mail.

McQueen and co-writer Abi Morgan aren't interested in transitions, motivations, or plot so much as holding on their characters' faces for uncomfortably long stretches and asking the audience to fill in the blanks of their personalities. The first few instances are acceptable, but when the film indulges in a tight close-up of Mulligan singing a record-book-slow version of "New York, New York"--but fails to give us any reason to care about whether Sissy lives or dies--the imbalance becomes intolerable.

A few scenes later, Brandon goes for a night jog, and we follow him for about two minutes of a medium, side-scrolling tracking shot. Rather than thinking, "I wonder what's going on in his head", I just marvelled at how much paperwork it must have taken to clear several blocks around Madison Square Garden to get that footage. Not good.

The film's single, truly cool shot occurs during the restaurant scene between Marianne and Brandon. It opens wide and gradually pushes in on the characters until we're right at the table with them. McQueen does a great job of masking the zoom by incrementally stepping up our proximity to the table via frequent interruptions by the waiter. There may have been cuts leading up to the final close-up of the two diners, but I don't remember them--which is one of the hallmarks of a gifted filmmaker.

Shame reminds me a lot of Drive, another film starring Mulligan, in which characters gaze at each other for interminable stretches. I like this movie slightly better, only because Fassbender does a better job of masking his blank-slate persona than Ryan Gosling did. McQueen and Morgan pepper a few lively scenes here and there, giving their plot a jerky, stop/start quality that teases forward momentum up until the closing scene--at which point their grand con is revealed.

As cons go, this is a pretty good one. The movie looks great, and Mulligan and Fassbender are occasionally given things to do besides whine, fuck, and stare. But I it's also a victim of its central conceit: sex is so pervasive, so convenient, in modern society that the act itself has become dull. Sixteen years ago, an NC-17 movie featuring threesomes and a star's casually swinging horse-cock would have been a right spectacle. But now that we can get porn beamed onto the phones in our pockets, a movie has to deliver more than high-def shots of naked famous people. Shame does not.

I'll give the filmmakers credit for their unintentional semi-remake of American Psycho, though. In structure and theme, Shame is like the adventures of Patrick Bateman--minus the inner monologue, homicide, and point. Brandon lives a quiet life of sophistication and rampant seduction that he constructed, apparently, to cover up great frustration and rage. But with little background information and no hint at a character arc, he's just a hot, occasionally hot-headed, uninteresting guy. Christian Bale's turn as a murderous day-trader shares a lot of the same elements, but his character's comic self-awareness and American Psycho's greater message about the impersonal nature of modern business gave that film scope and meaning.

McQueen could have said everything he needed with Shame in a tidy, twenty-minute short film. But at three times that length, he drains all the sex from his sex movie.