Shame Movie Review

Carey Mulligan and Michael Fassbender in 'Shame'
Carey Mulligan and Michael Fassbender in 'Shame' - Fox Searchlight
Reviewed by Ian Forbes, Sobering Conclusion

NC 17. The so-called kiss of death for a film’s box office success. While there are plenty of people old enough to go see a film slapped with the rating, many of America’s larger theater chains and DVD retailers (*cough* Wal-Mart) won’t carry it.
However, based on the early buzz, festival reactions, critical success and Fox Searchlight’s faith that people will see past the rating, Shame may likely perform quite well on a per-screen average … and there’s no shame in that (I’m so sorry, I couldn’t resist).
Of course, whether or not there’s the opposite effect in play here may also be true. By that, I’m saying that much of the hoopla surrounding director Steve McQueen’s vision might be derived from people thinking that it’s important and amazing because it’s pushing boundaries (and in case you’re wondering, this Steve McQueen bears no connection to the actor best known for films like Bullitt and The Great Escape). In short, I’m going to buck the general trend amongst critics and say that this film didn’t need to be NC-17 and keeping the elements that pushed it over the top ended up being more of a good marketing tool to draw out inquisitive audiences than a fundamental need.

Consider that what we’re really only talking about is less than a minute of full frontal male nudity (it’s a whole new side to Magneto Michael Fassbender) and most likely trimming down one of the film’s sex scenes; and there are only four total, which is generous because one of those isn’t fully consummated if you get my drift. There are also a handful of scenes where Fassbender is masturbating but there’s nary a penis shot among them (seriously, if you’re just there for the look-see, don’t be late, it’s all in the first five minutes).
The whole point of the film is to watch this man struggle with sexual addiction, which is exacerbated by the arrival of his sister (Carey Mulligan), as her presences dredges up the past and triggers a downward spiral for both of them. While it can be titillating to be slightly more graphic than a hard-R movie, now having watched it twice in order to fully gather my thoughts on the subject, the extra bits that are the conversation starter for the production aren’t necessary and are sadly overshadowing what’s underneath.
On the whole, Fassbender delivers all that is needed of the role. However, while his portrayal is mostly fearless, there are some key scenes which play far too manufactured, the most egregious of which being when his character fully breaks down and he has to walk out to a deserted pier, crumple to his knees, IN THE RAIN! How many clichés is that? Yes I know it’s three, shut up. It’s not the actor’s fault that McQueen included it in the script or shot it in such a maudlin fashion. If it weren’t for scenes like this, seemingly built to scream, “look at this amazing and vulnerable display of acting”, the performance would carry more weight – but it ends up feeling a bit tainted as a result.
Carey Mulligan also has a full frontal nude scene but thanks to the hypocrisy of the MPAA, I’m sure this didn’t prompt the ratings bomb or factor much into their decision. Her performance though feels far more genuine and will more than likely escape the manufactured aura surrounding Fassbender in my view. Like his character, hers is also deeply flawed; manic, impulsive, self-destructive. Seeing the arc of this fragile woman is far more intriguing than that of her brother.
Additionally, while there are differences, I was immediately struck by the similarity of Fassbender’s character to that of Christian Bale’s Patrick Bateman in American Psycho. Sure, you’re switching out homicidal tendencies for sexual compulsion but the same rise and fall is evident. There are even similarities in how they approach work and relationships, always struggling to maintain the appearance of normality and success, but also always sizing up their next mark. I have no idea if McQueen was influenced by this, or meant for there to be such casual allusions, but if you’re wondering about the progression of the character, it’s a loose framework that will give you an idea of what you might be in for.
And despite much of the hedging that I’ve been doing, McQueen’s film does present intriguing character studies with excellent acting, for the most part (there I go hedging again). There’s little doubt that Fassbender will be on the short list of actors earning nominations in the upcoming awards race, though I still have reservations whether being truly naked (literally and figuratively) inside such a seemingly calculated display of both physical and emotional demons doesn’t somehow lessen its impact. Shame will definitely be a discussion piece for the next few months, but after giving it a second look and a lot of thought, I’m pretty much done with the need to talk about it.
Shame hits theaters in limited release on December 2, 2011 and is rated NC-17 for some explicit sexual content.
More on Shame:
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Trailer, news and cast info