Steve Pulaski’s review published on Letterboxd:
The Oscars made a huge mistake for Best Actor when they looked past the performance of Michael Shannon in Take Shelter, and they've made the colossal, nearly unforgivable mistake of not even nominating Michael Fassbender for his extravagant work in Steve McQueen's latest film Shame. Here, we have a movie with a touchy subject matter that will without a doubt turn people off, and a rating of NC-17 that will likely do the same. This is the kind of film audiences need to see. Allow me to reiterate what I've said numerous times; we can't always be shown the bright side of life.
Shame is a deeply disturbing, psychological drama about a man forced to confront his sex addiction out in streets occupying bitterness upon the arrival of his manipulative, needy sister. The man is Brandon (Fassbender), a good-looking thirtysomething who has become a successful office worker in New York. Despite the crowded streets, Brandon is lonely, and feels detached from his emotions, seemingly unable to reach a point of genuine affection. His sister is Sissy (Mulligan), who, after numerous failed attempts to contact him, unexpectedly shows up at his apartment and moves in with him.
Because Brandon spends much of his time in his apartment with magazines, tapes, internet porn, one night stands, and prostitutes, he is now forced to take his desires to the cold and upsetting streets of New York.
While Fassbender clearly steals the show here, I feel that there is still not enough praise for Carey Mulligan's role. She is marvelous, exchanging, and undeniably attractive in an ugly and unwanted role. Both actors show incredible versatility by doing roles that I'm sure mainstream celebrities would've rejected in a heartbeat. I believe too many actors see this film as a dead end picture. Because of its concept and rating, they see it as a doomed opportunity because by having that NC-17 rating, it most likely forces the film into a modest run in arthouse theaters in big cities. Though despite noticeable limitations, Shame goes for broke, making a film not so much about garnering revenue but more about informing, disturbing, and giving audience members insight on a common problem uncommonly explored. I'd also like to tell mainstream actors that Shame has stayed in my head longer than most big-budget efforts.
The cinematography is absolutely tantalizing. Impressive scenery of New York is conveyed appropriately and efficiently, and very nice long shots are used to give us the feeling of intrusion or even subtle voyeurism. There's an impressive shot that continues for around three minutes of Brandon running along a sidewalk downtown listening to music. The shot is visually intelligent, somewhat mercerizing, and reminds us it's the simple things in film that continue to amuse us.
Shame is not without a few imperfections. Some will recall my review of Another Earth; a film of impeccable art direction, but sterile, uncompromising storytelling that left a lot to be desired. The main point of complaint I had with the film was that it relied way too much on subtle, distracting ambiguity which overcomplicated things, making too much seem metaphorical rather than seemingly serving a divine purpose. Shame relies somewhat on ambiguity too, some of which I think too vague and indistinct. We never get backstory on these characters (perhaps we don't need it), and it always seems that shots have a double standard towards them (the running shot I was talking about).
Ambiguity is certainly not a bad thing. It's like hot sauce on food; it makes the moviegoing experience more zesty and interesting, but too much drowns out the dish's main flavor. Shame, at times, just seems to vague and uncertain, expecting the audience to fill in the blanks more often than necessary. But that small element can't overlook the barrage of smart, crafty filmmaking still at large here. This is McQueen's second feature (his 2008 film Hunger also featured Fassbender) and it seems he is already on the path to perfecting indie cinema by populating it with efficient and intelligent pictures, both dark and insightful.
There is also a heavy amount of brutal honest plaguing the film. It is destined to "show it all," never neutering the subject of sex addiction. We are shown full frontal male and female nudity, and the reasoning is anything but gratuitous. While the film features a number of sex scenes, they are not erotic, pleasurable, or even remotely sexy. They are fierce, saddening, and lack intimacy, seeing as our main character feels no mental or emotional connection or fondness for his partner. These sex scenes are probably some of the saddest I have ever seen in film. They are simply cold and unmoving.
Shame is a wonderful film, but not in the usual sense. It is hard to watch, difficult to decipher, and gives your mood a complete one-eighty degree twist. We are left contemplating if any change has happened, or if Brandon is the same way he has always been. It's open for heavy interpretation. Let's put it this way; I don't want to see a sequel. It was hard enough to witness it the first time.
Starring: Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan. Directed by: Steve McQueen.