'Shame': Sex and the City
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
I, like most reasonable folks, am inclined to distrust contemporary artists -- conceptual, or video, or otherwise -- who make the leap into more or less conventional feature filmmaking. Most of the weaknesses I find in the films of Miranda July, for instance, I find (when I'm compelled to speculate on her process, which I admit isn't often) attributable to her performance art background.
I was similarly skeptical about the moviemaking prospect of British artist Steve McQueen, whose very name at first came off like some kind of cheeky conceptual-art jest. As it turns out, that's the fellow's real name, and it's just a coincidence. These things happen. More importantly, I wasn't knocked out by the art itself, particularly a video Buster Keaton pastiche starring the artist himself. But McQueen's debut feature, the striking fact-based drama "Hunger," was bracingly direct and more conventionally affecting than one might have expected, especially considering that the film doesn't train its focus on its ostensible lead character, IRA hunger-striker Bobby Sands, until almost a third into the film.
McQueen doesn't use the same strategy with his second film, "Shame." Here, he puts us in the world of its protagonist, Brandon, right off the bat, as it were, and a sticky, uncomfortable world it is. Brandon, played by great young actor Michael Fassbender, who also played Sands in "Hunger," is a compulsive consumer of sex. Anonymous sex, paid-for sex, sex with "girlfriends" whose calls he then declines to return, and so on.
Sex addiction is a tough, er, nut for some folks to crack; nice work if you can get it seems a standard flippant reaction to even the mention of such a condition. Well, look at it this way: If you can transpose the scene in which Brandon frantically throws away his porn stash, and imagine it as emptying bottles of booze down a kitchen sink, or flushing a bunch of powders and pills down a toilet, well, who can't relate to that, right? In any event, McQueen and Fassbender, already one of the most adept performers when it comes to giving the viewer a window into how the character he's playing actually thinks, do an incredibly thorough and upsetting job of limning the various paths of compulsion Brandon walks down, and the destruction he leaves in his wake. This is particularly true with respect to his odd relationship with his irresponsible and frenetic younger sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan), whose unexpected visit throws his slapdash routine into further disarray: His pursuits are beginning to interfere with his professional life, and further complications abound when his sleazebag boss (James Badge Dale) takes an aggressive interest in Sissy.
At the same time as McQueen and his cast enact the emotional and physical strain of these people in an exacting and thoroughly frank and often graphic way (the film is unabashedly NC-17), "Shame" also trucks in some aesthetic eccentricity. The film is set in a New York that is in some respects unmistakably contemporary -- characters are constantly texting, and of course one of the forms of sex Brandon's addicted to is cyber -- but at the same time kind of anachronistic, with graffiti-festooned subway cars and nightscapes that evoke Scorsese's "Taxi Driver" and Friedkin's notorious "Cruising." A nightclub scene in which Mulligan gives Nico a very expert run for the money in the slow-and-lachrymose singing department with a somnambulant rendition of "New York, New York" would not seem out of place in "The Creation of the Humanoids," while a restaurant first-date scene in which Brandon lays out his theory concerning the uselessness of relationships on an attractive co-worker (Nicole Beharie) features an insanely obtrusive waiter who could have come out of an Ionesco play.
These alienation effects are designed, I suppose, to deepen the chilly discomforting effect of the more realistic scenes, but they also risk compromising that effect. One shot of a shattered Brandon standing in the rain without a clue of where to turn gets more done than any of McQueen's flourishes, frankly. But you can't blame a onetime conceptual artist for trying, and as it happens McQueen is already an accomplished enough filmmaker that even his lapses are arguable ones. And Fassbender is unimpeachable, as is Mulligan, who, after the unnecessary bland out of her work in the overrated "Drive," proves she can deliver big-time when handed something real to work with.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.