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SHAME (2011) (****)

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It's been given the dreaded NC-17 rating. But how could an honest film about sex addiction be otherwise? Director Steve McQueen pushes his actor Michael Fassbender to the edge like they did in the IRA hunger strike drama HUNGER. This time Fassbender does things on screen you might not do at home with your spouse or girlfriend. But this is far from pornography.

Fassbender gives his best performance to date as Brandon Sullivan, a hot exec at a web firm who has terrible sex addiction. His mind is consumed with sexual impulses to the point where he has cut off his family and is getting into work later and later each day. Sex for him is just one extreme fantasy or fetish du jour. He hires prostitutes, buys volumes of porn videos and mags and is a steady customer to online sex cams. But his routine of anonymous sexual acts is disrupted when his troubled sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan, AN EDUCATION) shows up at his door needing a place to crash after another relationship has crashed and burned.

Sissy's presence jeopardizes Brandon's denial and cover-up of his problem, which makes him lash out angrily. He is ashamed of his behavior and in a purging gesture throws out all his porn even his laptop. But like any addict, he is back using again soon. Watch how Fassbender makes Brandon seem disgusted with the lecherous acts of his married boss David (James Badge Dale, THE PACIFIC). When David hits on Sissy, Brandon's reaction is like an alcoholic with the shakes. His sister, who knows his secrets, has put his faux organized world into disarray. But was it really stable before?

To Brandon sex is a momentary high. There are no emotions involved. Frankly, he has a problem dealing with genuine emotion. He hides his true feelings when he goes to see his sister sing. He's never had a relationship that has lasted more than four months. This is not a big selling point when he's trying to seduce his pretty co-worker Marianne (Nicole Beharie, THE EXPRESS). Because Brandon is so controlling and easy to anger, we fear his reaction to a woman who isn't being paid to do everything he wants her to do when he wants her to do it.

Fassbender's performance is brave beyond the full frontal nudity and graphic sex scenes. It's the hidden vulnerability that is so powerful. The title is dead on. Just watch the subtle panic that Fassbender portrays when David confronts him about all the porn viruses the IT staff found on his work computer.

McQueen, who penned the script with Abi Morgan, is a true visual artist. HUNGER showed off his prowess as a visual storyteller, but this film shows off his talents as a narrative director. There is a dialogue-free scene early on as Brandon checks out a woman on the subway that is filled with all sorts of tension, created through performance and pacing. First it's sexual tension and then it transforms into something completely different.

SHAME is one of the premiere films of the year. This lean drama doesn't have a wasted moment in it. Brandon Sullivan looks like a sophisticated man, but his secrets are as dirty as the gutter. The film is like a Bukowski poem.

Rick DeMott's picture

Rick DeMott
Animation World Network
Creator of Rick's Flicks Picks