By Eric Kohn | Indiewire September 12, 2011 at 7:55AM
In Steve McQueen's "Hunger," Michael Fassbender played an Irish Republican prisoner who demonstrated commitment to his cause by starving himself. As Brandon, the affluent and ceaselessly horny New Yorker in McQueen's "Shame," Fassbender has no such intense convictions. While "Hunger" contained an extensive monologue explaining the character's behavior, "Shame" leaves much of Brandon open for interpretation. As a result, Fassbender's revealing and compelling performance doesn't just dominate "Shame;" he defines it.
(This review was originally published during the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival. Fox Searlight opens "Shame" this Friday, December 2.)
McQueen's visual attentiveness establishes Brandon with incredible understatement, introducing his dual lives with a fascinating collage of small moments. He grits his teeth through a boring office routine, then drifts through a seedy nightlife filled with sexual encounters by every means at his disposal. He sports a suave exterior, while fixed in a hellacious cycle of working, screwing and enduring private anguish.
McQueen breaches the rhythms of Brandon's life with the unannounced arrival of his nomadic sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), crowding the bubble of his existence and threatening to make it burst. After she sleeps with Brandon's married boss, he begins to resent her careless behavior, possibly because it reminds him of his own. But that question hangs without a precise answer. McQueen's approach leaves much to the imagination.
Hyped like crazy and touted as a bonafide festival hit, "Shame" faces massive expectations it can't possibly fulfill. On the surface it aspires to be a dark psychological thriller; in truth, it's a far more humble and meditative work littered with flashes of brilliance but lacking a coherent whole. Mulligan's club performance of a slow jazz rendition of "New York, New York," matched with a tearful cutaway to Fassbender's expressive face, marks a standout moment (unlike, say, the half-dozen sex scenes, which mostly blur together).
Despite his frenetic behavior, Brandon is a sympathetic creation: He's divided against his bedroom antics, but incapable of seeking a solution. Because the cause of his addiction is never revealed, "Shame" focuses on small moments rather than setting up a string of clues. Evidence of Brandon's ailment exists in wordless actions, passing glances and straight-faced bedroom demeanor that establishes a constant state of dread. Fassbender's admirably raw performance, which puts his full body on display, transcends everything around it.
The movie's first shot finds the actor lying in bed and listlessly gazing at the ceiling as a ticking clock plays on the soundtrack. The audio cue suggests time is running out, but after the first act McQueen abandons that idea in favor of redundancy. Brandon's world comes to life, but never goes anywhere. Unwilling to diagnose his problem, he becomes his own worst enemy and projects his troubles onto everyone else. "Actions count, not words," he advises his sister, a statement that McQueen clearly takes as gospel.
criticWIRE grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Purchased by Fox Searchlight ahead of its Toronto International Film Festival screening, "Shame" will encounter issues with its graphic content when it goes in front of the MPAA; however, strong reviews and continuing success on the festival circuit should propel it to major arthouse success that should bring it into awards season in a healthy fashion.