Steve McQueen made a real impact in the film world with his powerful debut Hunger. But like with musicians, there is always the risk that a director's second film will not live up to the high expectations the first effort sets. Yet McQueen has a good go with his dark exploration of human character in Shame.
Brandon (Michael Fassbender) is a successful and well off man living in New York City. He is also a sex addict who constantly picks up women, hires prostitutes, views internet porn daily and masturbates at any given opportunity. It affects his day to day life and he lives a lonely existence. His life is made more complex when his singer sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan), a woman with obvious problems, crashes at his place. She interferes with his life, including sleeping with his boss, David (James Badge Dale) and sets Brandon off to tackle his addiction.
Brandon is depicted as a really despicable character, but he is a man struggling with an addiction. There is a number of sexual scenes throughout Shame, but there is no eroticism as Brandon explores more depraved and disgusting acts and his life spirals out of control. Shame plays as a drug addition movie, similar to Requiem for a Dream as someone struggles to give up something hazardous.
Fassbender offers a powerful performance as a dark, sinister man with strong interplay with Mulligan as he becomes threatening towards her. Compare him to Mulligan, a much more brittle character, on the edge for different reason. She gives a heartbreaking performance as a woman who does not know how to do deal with problems and has a sadness in her eyes. Their scenes were enhanced by McQueen's direction, using hand held cameras to follows Fassbender and the conversations stick to one point, making you feel like you are really watching them in a voyeuristic matter. This makes the movie more tense as the tone changes in an instant.
McQueen employs a grainy filter, giving Shame a dark, grim look which is perfectly fitting considering the atmosphere of the movie. The visuals have a similar feel and tone as other gritty and grim New York set films such as Taxi Driver, Midnight Cowboy and American Psycho, all of which follow the horrible underbelly of the city. He has shown that he is a great actors' director, but McQueen also had some great visuals, such as a long tracking shot of Brandon jogging and Brandon watching two people having sex in their apartment.
There are many moments in the movie that have little dialogue, relying on Fassbender superb abilities as an actor, particularly key in the beginning and during a long montage of Brandon wandering alone in New York, playing like a scene in the great novel Last Exit to Brooklyn. This is a movie about Brandon's continuing descent and self-sabotage and Fassbender should hopefully gain an Oscar nomination to back up his award buzz in Europe.
Shame continues McQueen's reputation as being one of the best emerging directors around, sticking to his no holds barred, brutal style which keeps a stage play quality to the presentation. Shame is tough, but worthy just for Fassbender's performance and keeps to a tradition of grim New York based film.
It's the best film this year.