Movie Review: Shame- Steve McQueen’s Sophomore Effort is Exquisitley Technical But Equally Disconnected

Anyone who took part in experiencing British director Steve McQueen’s first artistic cinema piece Hunger knew there was something relatively new occurring on the screen. It was a haunting prison experience, both in its lingering presentation and political undercurrents, where the visuals were so striking and detailed that it seemed as though the smells filled the room and the physical degradation personally felt. Hunger was a tad languid in its pacing but was truly a mesmerizing masterpiece that gave us promise that a new director could make artistic cinema interesting and relevant again. Which brings us to McQueen’s sophomore attempt at an artistic expression on the lifestyle and consequence of addiction entitled Shame. Also starring Michel Fassbender from McQueen’s first film Hunger, Shame is an unashamedly revealing risk of a film in skin rather than inner substance that doesn’t equally tackle the subjective mentality of an addict and the consequences that should follow. It is true that McQueen shows his protagonist Brandon as a somewhat alienated individual who can’t muster true human connection (even, and especially, with his sister), but his life and work are not actually debilitated from his addiction. It’s almost as though McQueen had an idea on how to address addiction and consequence but lost the true depiction of that idea by focusing on all the wrong technical and narrative elements, including improvisation of acting, a very loose plot not grounded in specifics, and too simplistically relaxed planning and direction. All of these elements came together so proactively in McQueen’s first picture begging the question why they didn’t seem to work as flawlessly in his newest film Shame? Most likely due to the fact that when you’re dealing with such a subjective and difficult topic as sex addiction you can’t necessarily tip toe around plot specifics because in the end it will be a disconnected experience for your audience. When it comes to a movie about addiction, alienation is what you want to portray but also making the character a victim to his own mental illness. Shame ignores this sympathetic drive for its protagonist which therefore leaves the audience grasping for relevance.

There are many positive attributes to McQueen’s Shame, including great performances from Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan as well as unique lingering shots that break modern composition standards which are edited in non-traditional ways (which sometimes means not at all). There is a light greenish tint to the shots outside of Brandon’s apartment as we see a jaded city in a jaded light giving the beauty of the concrete city a sort of cynical tone and presence. But the screenplay seems intent on just skimming the surface of Brandon’s addiction in an outline and bullet point style that is intentionally observational but inadvertently uninviting as to getting involved with the characters being presented to us. With addiction there is an undeniable reliance on the substance we are addicted to, which for Brandon is sex or rather sexual release. It is presented to us that he spends his free time with hookers, casual sexual encounters, pornography, and masturbation, but little is shown to us that it inhibits his work (just has a filthy hard drive) or his lack of communication or interaction skills. In fact, the only real work activity we see is him being praised for his pitch earlier in the day, which shows us a man who can confidently interact with people. He also has the charming ability to flirt and make an impression on some women at a bar while his boss and wing man is incredibly naïve and inept at the activity. When we are solely focused on Fassbender’s subtle acting as Brandon, such as his personal shame in regards to erectile dysfunction or an emotionally handicapped resistance to hearing his sister sing “New York, New York,” we begin witnessing truly divine excerpts of a film relating to an addictive human being. But that is all Shame possesses, just moments of artistic and directional brilliance in a story that seems as thin in substance as the paper it was written on. Most viewers who know what they are getting into will admire McQueen’s minimalist style, his beautiful capturing of New York City, and guiding a unique brother and sister relationship, but there will be an undeniable disconnected feeling in the aftermath to a film that doesn’t seem intent on speaking with its audience on an equal plane.

Unfortunately the independent arena for cinema is lacking some true original voices as we continually see replications of Little Miss Sunshine and Juno since people see quirkiness and extraneous abnormality as unique. So we are truly lucky to have a serious artist such as Steve McQueen trying to tackle complex and extremely uncomfortable subject matters including sacrificial starvation and now sexual addiction. While there are criticisms to be made about his sophomore effort Shame it would be irresponsible to not recognize his stylistic risks, his paradoxically distant yet intrusive observations, and ability to work with actors that isn’t dependent on radical emotional changes but instead a subtle and elegant presentation. Shame might be unable to tackle the true consequences of addiction, including what happens to an addict’s behavior once they can’t find their release, but gives a competent enough presentation in artistic style that makes it an interesting experience. McQueen does have a lackadaisical approach to making his films but perhaps there is a self-criticizing nature in him that will lead him to perfecting his unique cinematic eye. Most people will walk out of Shame astounded by Michael Fassbender’s performance, which should be commended for its restraint but really isn’t as revealing or sympathetically connecting as we would hope (mostly the fault of the loose script). For all of the controversy surrounding the sexual nature of the film Shame, that controversy only relates to the explicitly sexual when there is an obvious hole relating to the subjective debilitating aspects of addiction. Ironically it is a film that is unabashedly bare yet hesitant, and that is the true weakness of the piece in its entirety.

Grade: B

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One Response to “Movie Review: Shame- Steve McQueen’s Sophomore Effort is Exquisitley Technical But Equally Disconnected”
  1. Joe says:

    You criticize the film for not showing how his addiction effects his work. I just wanted to offer that there are functional addicts whose lives aren’t completely in disarray. This is a portrait of such a person. His personal life is obviously bearing the consequences of his actions. Compartmentalization is essential in such a life. He is upset when his sister sleeps with his boss, and his need to keep things separate may have also contributed to the erectile dysfuntion he experiences later in the film. He is upset when anyone from his “normal” life sees any part of his “sex” life.

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