By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
From X-Man to sex man. That’s the transition that rapidly rising star Michael Fassbender has made to end up portraying a sex addict in Shame.
Fassbender — emerging from an eclectic array of roles in not only X-Men: First Class but also Inglourious Basterds, Jane Eyre, Hunger, Fish Tank, Centurion, and the upcoming A Dangerous Method — plays Brandon, a compulsive New York City thirtysomething whose every waking moment, even during his corporate nine-to-five workday, seems to involve the grim pursuit of one form of sexual satisfaction or another. Not thinking about it, but actively chasing it. His lust is obsessive and relentless.
In this severe and humorless character study, Brandon is seen to make a decent living, residing as he does in an upscale but sterile Manhattan apartment. But contentment is a long way off. As are conventional romantic relationships that last for more than an evening and mean something to him.
He seems tortured, although we’re not exactly sure in what way. He seems self-destructive, but we’re not sure exactly how. And he seems angry, especially at his sister, but we’re not sure why.
When that sister, Cissy, played by Carey Mulligan, severely troubled but bubbly and much more emotionally expressive and accessible than her miserable brother, turns up unexpectedly and asks if she can crash in Brandon’s apartment temporarily, he reluctantly agrees, but soon starts lashing out at her neediness and foolishness.
And when aspiring lounge singer Cissy takes the mike in a club and sings the longest, slowest version of the song, “New York, New York” IN ITS ENTIRETY, making her brother cry and us scratch our heads, we realize that this level of self-indulgence is more performance art than moviemaking.
Director Steve McQueen (no, not that Steve McQueen) — the Brit who also directed Fassbender in Hunger, and who co-wrote the Shame screenplay with Abi Morgan — almost stubornly withholds information from us that would help us to understand why these two characters are damaged or were traumatized in their particular ways.
“We’re not bad people,” Cissy says to Brandon at one point. “We just come from a bad place.” But we never get to know just what and where that place is (although New Jersey and Ireland are mentioned in passing), which leaves a huge motivational gap in the middle of the film.
Ambiguity is fine as far as it goes, but at a certain point we begin to resent the superficiality of this approach. And it’s also at that point that the material under the microscope begins to seem vaguely exploitative and voyeuristic rather than exploratory and revealing.
The severely anecdotal narrative isn’t much help, as the look of visual stylist McQueen’s work — Manhattan in this case looking shiny, but quintessentially cold and empty and sleazy and impersonal — seems to be a lot more important to him than that audience-accommodating nuisance called storytelling.
We thought you were serious about this adult subject matter, we find ourselves wanting to say to director McQueen, but now it seems you’re just trying to be titlllating. For all the intimate moments of Brandon’s that we are privy to, we’re no closer to knowing what makes him tick at the end of the film than we were at the beginning.
In Fassbender and Mulligan, the director has got two highly skilled actors, who probably did their share of improvisatory work here, most of it highly credible. But there’s just not enough of a telling narrative arc for either of them to flesh out their thin characters and register three-dimensionally.
Shame is rated NC-17, by the way, as it should be, for “explicit sexual content,” which includes male and female frontal nudity.
So we’ll compel 2 stars out of 4 for a frustratingly shallow psychosexual drama the beauty of which really is skin deep. It’s certainly no shambles, but Shame is still a shame.