Shame is a movie whose trajectory I figured I knew about a third of the way in, that started to surprise me in its last act, and whose final scene, while ambiguous has too much of the feel of those cheesy old "To be continued...?" titles.
The "sex addiction-as-purgatory" film features Michael Fassbender as troubled Manhattan dweller Brandon, who spends most of the running time pumping his way through anything moving. His sexual exploits are a combination of charm, daring, and desperation, sometimes all at once, the actual acts typically joyless, soundless affairs with willing if not wholly interested parties. Whether it's the pretty married woman he eyes on the train (the one that got away), the prostitutes he calls up at all hours to his lifeless apartment, or the random hookup at the bar, Brandon is always on the prowl for satisfaction. His computers at work and home are choked with porn, his closets stacked with skin mags.
Two things happen in the movie to upend his singularly-focused life of gratification: his disaster of a sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) comes crashing back into his life, unexpected, unwelcome, and with no real sense of boundaries when it comes to her obviously messed up brother; then there's the woman in the office that Brandon's been eying like prey, but who might be something better and healthier for him.
But writer-director Steve McQueen (who co-wrote Shame with Abi Morgan) doesn't seem to be out to create some kind of redemptive/cathartic trajectory for Brandon. Instead, it's more of a "couple of days in the life" things that observes the character for a couple of days without getting too deep into his head. There are hints that something profoundly traumatic has shaken both Brandon and Sissy, leaving her an emotional wreck who seems to feel everything while Brandon outwardly appears to want to feel nothing but the press of flesh against flesh.
I think Fassbender's is the kind of performance that some would call "fearless," which is typically used to mean "in the nude a lot," but given the way Fassbender is built, this isn't so much fearlessness as self-promotion (hey, I'm not judging--good for him). Mulligan is the real revelation here, veering plausibly from charming, to uncomfortably playful, to hysterical disaster during the course of the story. More than anything, she embodies whatever the trauma is that Brandon has internalized. It could be easy to classify her work here as showy, but "showiness" is part of Sissy's character and essential as a counterpoint to Brandon's icy reserve.
We do get to see Fassbender's Brandon break his facade ever so briefly two times during Shame, but in neither case are these especially revelatory moments. They're both more about his pushing to the edge of his addiction without hitting bottom or coming out the other side (there's a sequence where we think he hits bottom, but I'd argued that it's not even close). Brandon, during the course of the film, becomes addiction personified.
Presentation and special features
You won't be all that illuminated by the three minute-ish EPK docs included on the Blu-ray. There are five, a couple of which were produced in conjunction with Fox Movie Channel: "The Story of Shame," "Director Steve McQueen," "In Character With Michael Fassbender," "A Shared Vision," and "Focus on Michael Fassbender." Each is essentially a lengthy clip presentation intercut with a few words from their respective subjects with "The Story of Shame" recycling elements from the other two docs to pad out its short length. No commentary here and the special features are rounded out by the theatrical trailer.
As for the disc itself, you can't fault the visuals here with being anything less than stellar. McQueen uses a light grain effect that gives Shame something like a vérité look during exterior scenes, but visually it's still vibrant. Blacks are velvety and "deep," like endless pits that draw in your focus. The 5.1 audio provides some nice ambiance with the rear channels during scenes in restaurants, although it would have been nice if the classical score kicked a little harder than it does across all channels.
Shame is available now on Blu-ray, DVD, and VOD.