As a less than auspicious directorial debut, Hunger was for all intents and purposes a testament to Steve McQueen’s budding prowess as an above average filmmaker. The former part of that statement is my own unfavorable opinion of course, but the film in question managed to do a fine enough job in illustrating the central character’s imminent struggle in a frequent and appealingly raw, unflinching fashion. In doing this, McQueen assured us as viewers that can deftly adhere to both aesthetic beauty and distressing subject matter in equal measure, henceforth generating much positive buzz about the young auteur’s latest effort, Shame.
This time straying from a fact-based medium in favor of chronicling an individual’s ongoing battle with sex addiction, a hard NC-17 rating ensures the film remains just that. With a topic as blatantly provocative as the one McQueen’s chosen, it can be assumed that a substantial portion of the film is either gratuitous or unwatchable for those who deem themselves more conservative as filmgoers. Thankfully, the more sexually explicit sequences are artfully constructed and presented while existing solely to serve as a means of conveying just how serious Brandon’s condition truly is, and while they’re often uncomfortable to sit through, this visceral aspect of the film puts it leaps and bounds ahead of similar explorations of addiction.
We quickly get a feel for how helpless this individual really is regarding this disease, prompting one to think that McQueen himself may or may not have been subject to a vice of his own at one point or another. Tension perpetually builds when Brandon’s misfit sister Sissy pays an impromptu visit to her estranged sibling, of whom soon pairs herself with Brandon’s woes in the workplace and elsewhere as his sexual compulsions prevent him from interacting with others in the simplest of fashions. Unsubtly slipping into the realm of melodrama at points, McQueen has also chosen to employ the similar, often laborious artistic techniques found within his feature-length debut, of which don’t always pair well with the increasingly distressing plight of our protagonist, yet they’re mostly deftly implemented and serve to accentuate the film’s intelligible visual flair.
The primary talking point outside of the film’s more gratuitous elements has to be the efforts of Michael Fassbender as the male lead, fully committing to the role in question in an unparalleled fashion that effectively compliments his physically demanding performance in Hunger. While McQueen is obviously very adept in setting a particular mood, it’s Fassbender that ultimately steals the show and consistently impresses from start to finish, fully embodying every aspect of the tortured soul at Shame‘s core and interacting wonderfully with Carey Mulligan’s equally compelling portrayal of Brandon’s sister, Sissy. In the plainest terms, it’s not easy to do what Fassbender has done here.
As an unsettling, startlingly accurate and compelling portrait of an individual struggling almost to death with sex addiction, Shame is a pretty stellar cinematic achievement. While it periodically suffers under the weight of its own artistic ambition, director Steve McQueen along with star Michael Fassbender have done a bang-up job in crafting such a tale as its protagonist sinks helplessly to the bottom of an ocean of despair. The film isn’t for the weak, but for those who can stomach the often gratuitous nature of Brandon’s continuous sexual escapades, Shame can easily be considered as something more than just a worthwhile character study, even as I personally find myself struggling with the notion of seeing it again.