Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (April 16, 2012)
When the MPAA authorized the “NC-17” rating in 1990, it was meant precisely for films like 2011’s Shame: a drama with strong adult themes that doesn’t fall under the banner of pornography.
Though Shame spends a whole lot of time with sex. To refer to 30-something Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender) as a sex addict would be an understatement. He gets it on with multiple women – including prostitutes – and masturbates frequently. Even when not involved in the act, he fantasizes about it or frequents Internet porn sites.
Matters take a turn when Brandon’s sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) busts into his life. Now working as a lounge singer, she finagles permission to sleep on his couch – and disrupt his carefully-cultivated sex-obsessed life. He also goes out with Marianne (Nicole Beharie), a separated co-worker with a much less cavalier attitude toward relationships.
At its core, Shame boasts the potential to deliver an incisive character drama about a man on the edge, but unfortunately, it doesn’t do much to adequately explore those areas. We spend an awful lot of time in Brandon’s world and see all facets of his existence, most of which get displayed in graphic detail.
This makes Shame an exhibition of fearlessness on the part of the actors – especially Fassbender, who goes places we don’t see mainstream talent go – but it doesn’t allow the movie to develop into anything with insight or depth. Essentially we find 101 minutes of sex, sex and more sex. It doesn’t devolve into the “porn” genre because it’s not that graphic; while edgy for a studio-distributed drama, Shame doesn’t really show anything more daring than a lot of nudity, as most of the sex acts remain implied.
While we may not see various body parts enter others, the film still revolves around these acts, and it gets tiresome. Granted, I recognize that was probably the point; the movie wanted to depict the emptiness of Brandon’s sex-obsessed lifestyle.
And that’d be fine – if Shame actually managed character development and insight along the way. It doesn’t. We see Brandon spiral out of control, a tragedy occurs… and that’s it.
Does Brandon grow or change? No – and that’d also be fine, if we actually felt like we got a real sense of him along the way. The sole stabs at psychological depth come when Brandon dates Marianne, as we see how sex only works for him when it comes with a lack of emotional connection. That’s not a particularly powerful observation – Brandon can’t get a boner if he cares about someone – and it’s virtually all the depth we find.
Shame tends to feel awfully self-indulgent, as many scenes ramble along far past their expiration dates. Take the segment in which Sissy sings “New York New York” at a lounge. This goes on for the song’s entire length – and since she does it a death march pace, that’s a long time.
Why do we see the whole song? I have no idea. I guess we can take some irony from a brash tune sung by someone insecure and lonely, but that’s about it – and that doesn’t require such an extended take. Shame comes chock full of scenes that run too long and leave us wondering why; a tighter cut would’ve made the segments more effective.
Or at least less tedious. In truth, there’s about 20 minutes of story/character development in Shame that gets elongated to 101 minutes of tawdry, unsatisfying movie. Despite a quality lead performance from Fassbender, the film fails to provide enough depth and insight to succeed.