Shame is one of those whiny, self-involved New Yorker tales that makes most normal folks cringe. It’s further hampered by a nearly non-existent and non-revelatory plot that leaves viewers with no better understanding of its characters at its conclusion than at its outset. That leaves only one legitimate reason to watch the film: star Michael Fassbender. No, I’m not referring to his much-ballyhooed full frontal work here, but rather his passionate acting performance.
Fassbender plays a damaged sex addict named Brandon Sullivan, an apparently wealthy bachelor with a swanky Manhattan apartment and not much to do after working hours except drift from one meaningless hookup to the next. Why is he damaged? No idea, but the surprise arrival of his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) reveals that she’s in the same boat. The inference may be that they both suffered some kind of abuse as children, either at the hands of relatives or possibly each other, but there’s never any definitive exploration of the origin of their madness.
With Sissy camped out in his apartment for an indefinite stay, Brandon descends into increasingly risky and destructive encounters. Sissy is also getting some action, right under Brandon’s nose in his apartment, which seems to cause him no small measure of mental anguish as he listens from the next room. Eventually, the characters reach something approaching a turning point when Sissy botches a suicide attempt and Brandon throws out his adult entertainment collection, but their tearful reconciliation offers no indication that they’ve changed in any meaningful way.
In spite of his character’s total lack of depth and clarity, Fassbender contributes a striking performance that furthers the roll he’s been on in the past few years. He’s left with little to do but offer pained expressions, and yet he makes us feel the character’s pain even if we don’t understand it at all. His scripted lines are completely unremarkable and unmemorable, leaving his visibly emotive work as the film’s sole high point. For her part, Mulligan’s role is so slight as to be inconsequential, marking this as one to downplay on her resume.
I’m left completely baffled by the acclaim for writer/director Steve McQueen. He’s crafted an unnecessary, unoriginal, and unenlightening project here that fails as anything but a showcase for Fassbender. It’s great that Fassbender returned to this director who gave him an early starring role (Hunger, 2008), but he should have considered his debt paid in full after this mess. Look, just because the film has an edgy, dark soul doesn’t mean it’s worth watching, especially when there’s no examination of that soul’s basis. Watching privileged New Yorkers mope about how miserable they are in their million-dollar home having meaningless relationships carries little to no weight for anyone but privileged New Yorkers. For the rest of us, take a pass and hope by some miracle that the McQueen/Fassbender tandem proves the third time’s a charm in next year’s Twelve Years a Slave.
For what it’s worth, the film’s production qualities shine on Blu-ray, with above average image and sound quality. The bonus features include spotlights on Fassbender and McQueen, behind the scenes footage, and an excerpt from a Fox Movie Channel interview with Fassbender.