Watching Shame is worse than the clichés of watching paint dry or grass grow, because in those instances you know there'll be some sort of satisfying conclusion, some point to it all. If there's a point to Shame, it's so subtle as to be apathetically invisible, which is so say you can't see it and it doesn't much care if you do. It features performances that range from stoic to histrionic, plot development that is nonsensical, scenes that drag on for no discernible reason, and awkward conversations that don't even show the promise of less-awkward conversations later on. It's a soulless, dead-eyed film. Brandon (Michael Fassbender) is supposed to be a porn addict who has gigabytes of the stuff on his PC at work and his laptop at home, plus a lot of magazines; he has anonymous sex with anyone he can find. He's a bit of a nihilist, not moving through life so much as wafting through it like an unpleasant odor. But his sex addiction, let's be frank, is really rather tame. There are probably millions of loner males who indulge in the same behavior. That is, this ain't the same guy played by Christian Bale in American Psycho or by Robert DeNiro in Taxi Driver. Brandon, a well-off exec at some Big Company, simply finds outlets for his desires, sometimes tempting danger, but never resorts to crime or anything requiring emotion. We're meant to take that to mean he's repressing something.
Enter his sister, named – seriously – Sissy (Carey Mulligan). Our first glimpse of Sissy is her emerging, startled, from Brandon's shower; she's arrived unexpectedly (to stay) while he was at work. She is naked, and we see it all. We're supposed to be shocked, and we are. After all, Carey Mulligan is an up and coming star, and this is no stand in. Brandon's reaction is a little more of the enraged type, but he merely bottles it up and stomps away after closing the door. There's a lot of door slamming in the movie.
Over the course of the movie, we get some clues to the nature of the siblings' relationship. They have been out of touch for some time, although Sissy does have her brother's apartment key. She's flirty and works as a torch singer in various New York clubs. He seems to be perpetually seething at her immature behavior. Is it because she's disrupting his happy fun time, or is it something more
decadent? The movie's title gives us an idea.
The movie promises to be intriguing. Why have these two been apart? Where has Sissy been, and why does Brandon hold her in such contempt? We're supposed to assume that his constant masturbating and hooker- engaging portends something, a way perhaps of acting out an emotion or two. But what? We're never told. The hints are there, and one can make an educated guess to the root of the problems, but it's a fool's errand. It's not just that we might not find out the entire truth, we might not find out anything, period. That leaves us with two opposite characters who, under less-profane circumstances, could have starred in a buddy sitcom about mismatched roomies.
The movie looks grimy and feels slimy. You want to take a long bath afterward, not a cold shower – despite the frequent sex and nudity. Sometimes, the movie shows us one thing, leading us to one conclusion, and then shows us a different conclusion. Whammo, you've been hit by a red herring. There's more depravity in here than there was in Abel Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant but without the compelling plot. Novice director Steve McQueen (no relation) seems to have little idea on how to end a scene, as long silences seem pointless rather than pointed. People stare at each other, then off into space, as if this meant something. Maybe it does. You won't care.
Shame is an ugly mess. It's an unhappy, inconsolable wreck of a movie. It's not a train wreck from which one cannot avert one's eyes; it's just a generic wreck that is faceless, dispassionate, and distant.
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