Tuesday, November 15, 2011

SHAME (2011)

Michael Fassbender gives a fearless, riveting performance as Brandon, a sex addict in New York City.  We first meet Brandon between various anonymous sexual encounters as he wanders naked through his fastidious apartment pursued by a recurring female voice on his answering machine.  We initially believe the voice to be a spurned paramour but learn it belongs to his sister Sissy (a marvelous Carey Mulligan), who turns up in his shower uninvited.  Despite clear discomfort at the proposition, Brandon agrees to let her stay on the couch until she finds her own place.  And his workplace provides little solace as Brandon learns his laptop has been taken away to remove a virus.  When he asks out co-worker Marianne (Nicole Beharie) and finds he respects her, he is unable to perform sexually because he has never associated sex with respect.  While Brandon uses sex to avoid real intimacy, Sissy mistakes sex for real intimacy and drives away her suitors as effectively as her brother’s detachment.  Brandon’s philandering married boss David (James Badge Dale) seduces Sissy and returns her to the apartment for consummation.  Soon Brandon’s boundaries begin to collapse, leading him on a night of self-destructive debauchery that earns the film its NC-17 rating.  Director Steve McQueen and co-writer Abi Morgan do not make judgments, they merely observe.  The only character to make a moral judgment in fact is sleazy boss David when he comments that Brandon’s virus-infested laptop is “filthy.”  Nor do the filmmakers delve into the siblings’ history, though it’s clear their childhood was an emotional train wreck to judge by the toxic codependence.  The writers’ only stumble is in overplaying Brandon’s night of degradation by including an out-of-character homosexual encounter.  Otherwise McQueen’s touch is artful and restrained, and he elicits top-drawer, award-worthy performances from both Fassbender and Mulligan.  One can only hope the more prestigious award organizations see past the strong subject matter to honor two brave, unflinching portrayals.

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