2011 was a hell of a year for Michael Fassbender, a year in which he effortlessly hopped genres and worked with some of the best directors around, building one of the most impressive filmographies of any young actor at this time. Yet the one performance that will be remembered over all others comes from the most low-key film, Steve McQueen’s SHAME. As grim and uncomfortable as the film gets, it is simply impossible to turn away from Fassbender’s devastating performance as sex addict Brandon, and his omission from the Academy Award nominations, although perhaps not surprising given Hollywood’s trepidation regarding anything overly sexual, is far and away the greatest crime this awards season.
Following up on his previous film HUNGER (also starring Fassbender), writer/director McQueen delivers an even more harrowing and haunting film with his sophomore effort. SHAME is a portrait of the vicious routine of addiction, and Fassbender strips himself completely bare, both literally and emotionally, following the arrival of Brandon’s sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan). Although only briefly alluded to, clearly Brandon and Sissy come from a nightmarish background of abuse, and each sibling has developed crippling emotional problems as a result. Where Brandon is totally emotionally isolated, unable to connect on anything other than a purely physical level, Sissy craves closeness and love from her brother which he cannot give. Their relationship is unsurprisingly strained; with only the briefest moments of tenderness amongst their uneasy and oddly child-like interactions, and the tragedy of their shared experience has left them each dealing with their demons in completely different ways, leading to heart-breaking conflict. Sissy’s appearance shatters Brandon’s routine, forcing him to see the train-wreck that his life has become, and Fassbender gives everything in service of the role.
As excellent as Fassbender and Mulligan are, they are more than complemented by McQueen’s beautiful directing style. Coming from a visual arts background, naturally his compositions are flawless, and much like HUNGER, SHAME’s minimalist dialogue often comes in the form of long takes, adding a sense of unsettling realism which is occasionally difficult to endure. In very Kubrick-ian style, the director’s attention to detail in his locations also adds so much to the tone of the story. Brandon’s sparsely furnished and decorated apartment works as a perfect counterpart to his character, revealing nothing on the surface yet filled with hidden clues about his addiction, and as such becomes an extension of his personality, making Sissy’s presence all the more unwelcome. McQueen’s choices of where to focus his camera are fascinating and, coupled with the suggestive imagery and euphemistic dialogue, subtly convey so much of what he wants to say, resulting in one of the most remarkable films of the year. Those expecting a concrete resolution will perhaps walk away disappointed, but for audiences with a high threshold for unpleasantness, SHAME is an absolute must-see.