Originally Reviewed – 1/10/2012
One word: NC-17.
Kinda freaks you out, doesn’t it. The Scarlett Letter of film ratings, NC-17 has the potential to doom a film to obscurity. Major theaters won’t pick it up, Walmart won’t sell the DVD and the film gets looked at with a crooked glance, as if you’d have to go to a creepy place with “viewing booths” to watch it. Usually given for explicit sexual content, the lines for warranting an NC-17 are ridiculously blurry. Industry pressure causes filmmakers to cut, crimp and tone down their work just to avoid the damming label. Even last year’s Blue Valentine was at risk of falling victim to the NC curse. Luckily it was saved at the last moment by an appeal from the Weinsteins and received the R without any additional editing but imagine if you had to go to Helga’s Adult Emporium to see an Oscar nominated film. Despite the stigma of the rating, British filmmaker Steve McQueen (Hunger) decided to pull no punches with his latest film, Shame, an unflinching look into the world of sexual addiction. Unfortunately, nearly every jab misses the mark in one my biggest disappointments of the year.
Michael Fassbender plays Brandon, a thirty something New York sex addict who spends his hours surfing scandalous websites and spending time with various women of the evening. Despite his life consuming desires, Brandon is functioning quite well. He just landed a big deal with his firm, he has the money to satisfy his urges and life isn’t too shabby. That is until his sister (Carey Mulligan) comes knocking on his door. She needs a place to crash while restarting her singing career and just like that, Brandon’s routine of decadence is thrown out of whack, forcing him to examine the lifestyle he’s created.
First the good and despite the low score, there are some positives. Director Steve McQueen does a very good job at setting the right tone for the film. Although the movie deserves every letter of its NC-17 rating with some very gratuitous sex scenes, McQueen never does so to titillate. Instead, the trysts are somber and joyless, perfectly conveying the compulsion of sexual addiction. Fassbender also does the best he can with a terrible script (more on that later) and delivers a performance that has flashes of brilliance, except when he starts crying or tries to hide strong Irish brogue. Again, not the fault of the actor as this is a pitch nobody could hit.
And what a hollow pitch it is. Supported by a god awful script, Shame languishes in dialogue that goes nowhere and one cut scenes that drag on indefinitely. The script is twenty minutes worth of ideas stretched out to ninety and the filler drags the pacing to a crawl. Scenes such as a long jog across midtown Manhattan and a funeral dirge version of New York, New York sung by a sleep inducing Carey Mulligan do nothing to further the story or give us insight into the characters. What the film calls ambiguous, I call lazy writing, the mark of a filmmaker who isn’t aware that having people suffer isn’t enough to make an audience care. While I did like Fassbender in the difficult lead role, Mulligan again disappointed as his eccentric sister. Playing more a caricature than a character, Mulligan flips from manic to depressive with little insight into her characters true motivations.
All that aside, Shame can be best described as a well-meaning mess, a film that does its best to take viewers on a cringe inducing journey into the heart of sexual addiction. The premise is good, Fassbender has some amazing moments and the film has a nice ending twist that highlights the central theme beautifully. Problem is, you need to give us characters we can care about and a story to pull us through their pain. Shame fails at both those goals, instead filling the screen with fluff and filler. Featuring banal dialogue, pretentious film techniques and boring scenes that chased people out of the theater, Shame offers much but, in the end, provides very little. A good try at pushing the envelope, Steve McQueen’s latest is a cold, desperate and utterly painful film to sit through. Not since Showgirls has NC-17 been so boring. Tsk, tsk. What a Shame.
Score – 40%