Shame made me feel bad about wanting to feel good. Watching Michael Fassbender coast through his upscale life as a sex addict was disturbing. Well, maybe not fully disturbing, but certainly off putting. But it stayed interesting at least throughout most of it.
If you asked me to explain the plot of Shame, I think I would find it rather difficult. I guess in its simplest terms, it’s about a guy who will sink to various lows to indulge his sexual appetite. His sister (Carey Mulligan) comes to visit, and she’s also a little messed up in the head. And… well, I don’t really know what other major conflicts happen throughout the film until the very end. There’s a lot of potential conflicts and threats, but they never really amount to anything and often fizzle away without getting mentioned again. Shame has less of a functional story than it does intriguing observations. But then the further you get into it, the more the observations seem like glimpses.
Fassbender gives a brilliant performance. It’s relatively quiet and contemplative, as if he’s fully aware of what his life is all about. But still, his smug expressions often show that he has little to no remorse about anything he does during the first and second acts. Maybe towards the end does his character get something of an arc, but still it’s not a complete arc. Mulligan is pretty good as his sister. She has sort of a playful nature, but you can also tell she is damaged goods, and deeply disturbed. They sort of mention in passing that there is something in their past that causes them to act the way they do, but it never comes close to explaining it. Doesn’t even try.
That’s where Shame sort of falters; in the fulfilling story department. It does a good job setting up an interesting character in the beginning. Gives clues as to how he’s living his life. Some subtle, others (like "relieving himself" in a public restroom) not so subtle. The film is about as arty as a quasi mainstream film can get. Director Steve McQueen captured an interesting atmosphere, and allowed his actors to do what they had to do, but there was no framework for the audience to wonder what’s going to happen next. Scenes that happen 90 minutes into it feel like they could have happened in the beginning, and the only major plot development happens in the last 10 minutes, before an ambiguous ending. And this is the kind of movie you assume will have an ambiguous ending from just watching the trailer.
The NC-17 rating is pretty overblown. It’s not as smutty as, say, Caligula. It’s more on par with Boogie Nights. Sure, it’s pretty dirty for a movie, but it’s not as if it’s a porno. Shame is done so artsy that it more reminded me of those Swedish films I used to watch in college when I was determined to watch everything in the Criterion Collection, like I Am Curious: Yellow. The NC-17 rating however will do nothing but put more butts in the seats of a small film that probably wouldn’t have many butts in the seats without it. That’s why the studio embraced the rating. I’ve never had a chance to see a NC-17 movies in theaters before, so they must be doing something right.
All in all, Shame is a movie I would never recommend to anyone. That’s not saying I didn’t like it. Because I did. But I’m down with quiet art house movies with stylish cinematography, unconventional storytelling and dark, heavy undertones. It’s kind of like Drive‘s little brother. Drive is the violent brother and Shame is the perverted one. And their parents are American Psycho and Mulholland Drive. Totally messed up household, but they all keep it so low-key that the rest of the neighborhood doesn’t notice. These aren’t the kind of movies 75% of the general public will enjoy. They will not meet most people’s expectations. By a long shot. Drive is to Fast & the Furious, as Shame is to Striptease. But I’m happy these kind of movies exist. It’s nice to have films that appear as if the filmmaker isn’t just doing it for the paycheck. I’m not saying I loved Shame by any means, but I definitely liked it. Had they created an actual story around Fassbender’s character, even if that meant adding 20 more minutes to the running time (or: cut down Carey Mulligan’s excruciatingly long musical number), then perhaps I would have loved Shame. It just kind of doesn’t go anywhere how it currently stands.