Written by Abi Morgan and Steve McQueen
Directed by Steve McQueen
It seems almost paradoxical that there appear to be so few films that successfully probe into the life of the contemporary male. That is to say: the great majority of filmmakers are male; male actors topline most movies; most successful screenwriters are male. Yet there is a distinct shortfall in the number of movies that directly tackle the question of manhood in the new century. Steve McQueen’s stunning follow-up to Hunger, which reunites him with that film’s star, Michael Fassbender, exploits what seems at first to be a straightforward – if unconventional – story of addiction in the ultimate service of exploring just what it is to be a man.
Brandon (Fassbender) is, by all possible metrics afforded by men’s magazines and popular culture, an exemplary creature. He’s tall, striking, handsomely framed, wealthy (and steadily employed), lives in New York, and beds beautiful women on a more-than-regular basis. In fact, and in marked contrast to his bumbling boss (James Badge Dale, late of Rubicon), he seems to have a preternatural gift for seducing women. As Shame opens, though, the voice we hear on his answering machine doesn’t belong to some booty call, but rather to his endlessly troubled younger sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan), a struggling cabaret singer with a tremulous voice and old scars marking time along her arm. As she tries to insinuate herself into his life, Brandon struggles to balance his overdriven sex life and his sense of responsibility – however slight – as an older sibling.
If Brandon has any true corollary in the popular depiction of men, it’s Mad Men‘s Don Draper, but even Draper is meant to be seen as a relic from some bygone era. Brandon is unquestionably a sex addict, in that he doesn’t seem to differentiate at all between legitimate dates, encounters with prostitutes, online encounters, and masturbating in the shower – all are merely a means to an end. Brandon therefore can’t help but play into the notion of women as objects, even if his state of mind isn’t that outwardly contemptible. And so it follows that the film’s tenderest scene of would-be lovemaking, between Brandon and a comely co-worker (Nicole Beharie) is also its only aborted one
McQueen’s long-take-driven style, so memorably showcased in Hunger, is here translated in a very modern setting, and Shame even features a variation on Hunger‘s extended conversation piece, here reprised in the form of a perpetually interrupted date. (Another memorable take tracks Brandon on a late-night jog through the city to escape the unseemly goings-on in his apartment.) McQueen and Fassbender’s continued, intense collaboration helps to keep Brandon human even in the face of some truly monstrous behavior, particularly late in the film, wherein Brandon’s pent-up frustrations culminate in a marathon of depravity. As Brandon struggles with his urges – how many times has he shamefully discarded his porn collection, we’re left to wonder? – so we are left to struggle with where his lack of advancement leaves the object he symbolizes, the modern man, for whom unfettered access to outlets for base pleasure has only left him utterly inaccessible, even to himself.