Steve McQueen’s dark-and-richly-photographed, descent-into-hell Shame is, I suspect, exactly the film he wanted to make, and I respect and admire him for that. But it arrives with such hyperbolic praise, you might want to lower your expectations. The film is likely to leave viewers unsatisfied and empty, and not in a way that reflects the emotionally-tortured, sex-addicted character Michael Fassbender plays so powerfully. Shame is not really that daring; nudity on screen isn’t exactly hard to find. And while, scene-for-scene, it is effective and intense, The film doesn’t come close to being a fully realized drama. McQueen and Fassbender offer episodes from a character’s life, which is no replacement for the sense of character the film sets us up to expect.
The details of that character’s life are dutifully in place: Brandon lives in a Chelsea high-rise and works in another high-rise, where his computers is loaded with such disgusting porn even his sleazy boss (James Badge Dale) is more shocked than impressed. McQueen gets to the point right away: there’s full-frontal Fassbender, and an encounter with a call girl that for a few seconds seems erotic – he seems to enjoy himself – but we quickly learn that his obsession has so overtaken him that dinner is Chinese takeout in front of a porn site.
This might have been enough if all McQueen wanted was a portrait of an addict, but he changes the dynamics by bringing in Brandon’s sister, Sissy (really? Sissy?) played by Carey Mulligan. Brandon has been avoiding her, apparently because he’s afraid of getting too close – or maybe already has. She’s damaged too, penniless, throwing herself easily at men. And she inexplicably gets a gig as a singer, apparently so McQueen can let Mulligan do “New York New York” as a sad ballad that brings tears to her brother’s eyes.
Fassbender and Mulligan give fierce performances, although their roles seem calculated to evoke the adjective “brave.” And as both plunge even further into self-destruction, the film creates tension as we wait to see whether the siblings fall into bed together.
But after McQueen sets up this family drama – no one made him do it – he refuses to tells us much about the family. We know where Fassbender’s accent comes from; he says that his immigrant parents settled in New Jersey when he was a boy. Near the end, when a distraught Sissy leaves him a phone message, saying, “We’re not bad people. We just come from a bad place,” all I could think of was “Does she mean New Jersey?” Truly, no offense to New Jersey; we just don’t know anything more about this pair. How did they get so damaged? And shouldn’t we have a clue why Brandon is addicted to sex, rather than drugs or alcohol or stamp collecting? No use arguing that McQueen chooses not to tell us; he brought the question on himself. It would be good if Shame rescued its NC-17 rating from its porn-dweller status, elevating it to the mark of a real, adult film. But being adult doesn’t make the drama work.
The serious narrative flaws are surprising because McQueen shares writing credits with Abi Morgan, who wrote the terrific BBC series The Hour as well as The Iron Lady. But McQueen’s earlier work was in visual and video art, and his features veer more toward performance art than narrative film. That approach worked better in Hunger, with Fassbender wasting away in prison as IRA martyr Bobby Sands; the real Sands’ story filtered in enough so that the hunger strike on screen had a meaningful background.
The film worth seeing for Fassbender’s wrenching portrait, but it feels as if McQueen is straining to add a story he’s clearly not invested in. And is he doesn’t care, why should we?