Thursday, August 23, 2012

Short Take: Shame

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

Michael Fassbender stars in Shame, the second feature directed by British filmmaker Steve McQueen. At first glance, his character embodies the ideal of the successful single guy. He’s a well-paid, strikingly handsome white-collar professional who lives and works in Manhattan. He’s also a sex addict who compulsively indulges in hook-ups, call girls, and pornography. His world is thrown for a loop by the arrival of his sister (Carey Mulligan), a small-time jazz singer who crashes at his apartment. The siblings are two sides of the same coin. They’re both desperately alone and emotionally adrift, but she’s as high-strung as he is self-contained. The film works best as a showcase for the two actors. Fassbender’s specialty is smoldering beneath a stoic surface, and he shows a remarkable range within it. The character’s fear, pain, and loneliness are as palpable as his anger. Mulligan’s role doesn’t allow for this kind of austere bravura. The woman is slobby and demonstrative, but Mulligan makes her a vivid counterpoint to her brother. Mulligan shines brightest in the film’s best scene: her character’s nightclub performance of “New York, New York.” It's a low-key rendition that aches with longing, and it brings tears to a listener’s eyes. The two stars are terrific, but the film is cold, glib, and pompous. One can’t decide if McQueen is using the sex to jazz up the angst, or the angst to jazz up the sex. The explicitness of the film (which earned it a NC-17 rating) comes off as self-congratulation for being “bold” and “unflinching.” The picture is compelling, but it is hardly poetic or profound. The screenplay is credited to McQueen and Abi Morgan.

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