Shame (Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack)
Director - Steve McQueen
Cast - Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan
Country of Origin - U.S.
Discs - 2
MSRP - $29.96
Distributor - 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
Reviewer - Bobby Morgan
The Film: 4/5
Brandon (Fassbender) is a moderately successful businessman living alone in New York City. He has the ideal life of a bachelor, desirable to women everywhere and beloved by his male colleagues. Brandon also has an insatiable appetite for sex and spends the majority of his time seeking out the pleasures of flesh in any form wherever he can find it. Despite the constant desire for sexual gratification Brandon remains aloof and closed off from any personal relationships, particularly with his flighty vocalist sister Sissy (Mulligan). When she arrives in town with no clear plans for the immediate future Brandon begrudgingly agrees to let her stay in his apartment. They’re able to make the most of an awkward situation at first but Brandon soon finds himself unable to reconcile his hunger for depraved delights with his sister’s pathological need for emotional support, even if that need comes at the cost of her dignity. As their two worlds collide Brandon’s obsessions threaten to consume his soul and put his fragile sibling on her own download spiral.
I tend to shy away from films about sex addiction, not because I’m a prude when it comes to the subject but because they usually revolve around characters who are less human beings than avatars for the filmmakers’ armchair psychiatry masking as storytelling. Some of those films also take an uncomfortable tone of clinical analysis, great if you’re a sex education lecturer but rather lousy if you’re a feature film narrative. Shame, the second film by British filmmaker Steve McQueen, presents its characters as living, breathing individuals consumed by needs and desires from opposite ends of the spectrum. It’s not so much a movie about sex (or maybe it is) as it is a movie about the emotional extremes that damaged souls will go to escape their demons. There is a tension underlining the relationship between Brandon and Sissy and although it is never explained - and doesn’t really have to be - it permeates their every interaction.
Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan are both astonishing as the distant siblings; Fassbender seems to knock every role he gets out of the park these days and his performance as Brandon, in his second collaboration with director McQueen (their first was the 2008 drama Hunger, which also was the movie that made Hollywood first take notice of the Irish-German actor), is one of the most quietly devastating turns by an actor I’ve seen in years. Fassbender exudes a haunting presence with a minimum of dialogue except in a few key scenes. The sex scenes notwithstanding (they are really good sex scenes) the film’s finest moments involve Brandon trying in vain to forge relationships with the two women in his life who mean anything to him - Sissy, and his sexy co-worker Marianne (Nicole Beharie). The movie’s most integral scene is Brandon and Marianne’s dinner date, a masterfully composed vignette where the two of them have an enlightening conversation that reveals their conflicting attitudes towards relationships. The two actors share an indelible chemistry.
But the central relationship in Shame is between Sissy and Brandon. You can understand Brandon’s mounting frustration with his sister and her lack of respect for his privacy, but it takes very little for the clean-cut businessman to come unraveled, indicating that he and Sissy bear emotional wounds that may never heal. Mulligan, another performer having a great 2011 between this movie and Drive, matches Fassbender’s quiet reserve with a delicate sweetness masking a disturbing neediness that rears its head whenever she gets into a relationship. The one moment in Shame that I will not forget soon is Sissy’s haunting rendition of “New York, New York” in a bar, her voice aching with a warmth and sentiment that serves as a life preserver in a film awash in desperation and despair. It’s a performance so moving that even cold Brandon sheds a few tears. I can see now why Baz Luhrmann cast her as Daisy Buchanan in his upcoming 3D adaptation of The Great Gatsby.
Shame is stylishly directed by McQueen, working from an effective screenplay he co-wrote with Abi Morgan (The Iron Lady), with sensuous cinematography by another of his creative partners on Hunger, Sean Bobbitt. A soundtrack of well-selected jazz and classical music highlights the beauty and underscores the loneliness in every frame of the film.
Shame’s gorgeous nighttime and rain-soaked daytime cinematography is presented in a 2.35: 1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that is rich with cool blues and a warm orange glow in the bar and club scenes. English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio and Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtracks aren’t exactly essential since most of the dialogue is spoken in hushed tones but they do their job just fine, with special attention given over to the music.
For a movie as great and lauded as Shame is its selection of extras are pretty skimpy. The supplements begin with upfront previews for The Descendants and Margaret that can also be accessed from the main menu. Instead of a commentary or in-depth documentary Fox has supplied with a handful of brief featurettes devoted to Fassbender, McQueen, the film’s story, Fassbender again, and Fassbender and McQueen again. Each mini-doc runs 3-5 minutes. A theatrical trailer rounds out the package.
The Blu-ray also contains a bonus disc containing a DVD and digital copy of the film.
Despite a Blu-ray presentation with excellent A/V quality but lacking in substantial supplementary features I highly recommend Shame for anyone looking for a great drama with powerhouse performances that is brave enough to explore the depths of the souls of its wounded characters without passing judgment on them for their flaws. One of last year’s finest cinematic achievements, Shame is difficult to watch at times but those who dare to stick with this polarizing yet quietly haunting films will be amply rewarded.