Shame | Film review
Steve McQueen’s Shame can’t match the confidence of his debut, Hunger.
British artist Steve McQueen’s Hunger (2008) was a blindsiding feature debut—a swirling, three-movement symphony on IRA icon Bobby Sands’s hunger strike whose visual confidence and intricacy of sound design demanded attention from the first shots. The best moments of Shame, about a white-collar sex addict (Michael Fassbender) who finds his cocoon ruptured by the arrival of his troubled lounge-singer sister (Carey Mulligan), have a similar in-the-moment quality, emphasizing viscerality and texture over psychology. You sense it in the film’s eye for the sterility of Brandon’s NYC apartment (no books on the walls), its spot-on ear for bar flirtations (the movie’s best scenes, drawn out for maximum suspense) and the increasingly rare pleasure of seeing a city depicted in a geographically consistent way. (There’s also symbolic freight: It’s presumably no accident that Brandon’s flirtation with a fellow subway rider ends in Lower Manhattan.)
Eventually, though, the impulse to explain the character takes over; you’ve rarely seen a movie with so many great sequences crash and burn so thoroughly in its last 20 minutes. From interviews, it seems McQueen believes his film is more ambiguous than it plays, but his exit strategy is even less subtle than Harry Escott’s doleful, wall-to-wall score. Fassbender and Mulligan are both riveting, although he’s more quietly impressive as Carl Jung in David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method (opening in Chicago December 16), which requires him to do the reverse: invest a man who’s all superego with a hint of id. Brandon, by contrast, is a glowering, laconic shell; Mulligan, who deserves accolades for her largo rendition of “New York, New York” alone, is the one with a character to play.