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Ten Word or Less Review: In a lonely place.

The secretive, central character of Shame is Brandon.  Brandon’s apartment is a lot like Brandon.  It’s white and clean and uncluttered with mess.  He owns some books and records but has no art on the walls.  It reflects very little outward personality and though small, it demonstrates some level of personal success on his part.  A well kept apartment on a high floor of a Manhattan complex surely cost a fortune no matter how tiny.  But right below the surface of this pristine exterior lies something rotten.  Brandon, and by extension his living space, is hiding something from everyone.

Michael Fassbender plays Brandon and his secret is that he is a sex addict.  We watch during Shame’s opening moments as Brandon indulges in sexual activity at every possible moment.  Be it with prostitutes, willing strangers up for a one night stand or indulging in a constant stream of porn at both home and work, Brandon is a functioning addict of a very high order.  Getting off is the driving force behind his whole existence, but there is nothing like joy or love in what Brandon does.  Like an alcoholic who drinks but no longer derives pleasure from it, Brandon’s behavior is simply compulsive and mechanical.  His system of living gets an abrupt and unwanted disruption when his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) begins to stay with him.  She’s an agent of the untidy, physical and emotional, and she throws his patterns disturbingly out of whack.  Because of her arrival, as well as other extenuating circumstances, Brandon slowly loses his grip on his perverted existence.  His neatly kept facade begins to break down and the extent of his self destructive behavior begins to be revealed.

Shame marks another notable achievement for Fassbender.  He almost single handedly returned credibility to the X-Men franchise and now stripped of budget and gloss, Fassbender shows that he’s not going to run away from unflattering material, or abundant nudity, in the face of growing success.  His Brandon is a pathological recluse.  He’s a seemingly well adjusted but distant man with no genuine interest in anything.  Though he’s well liked at work and easily obtains sex from females, he wants no meaningful relationship with anyone, not even his sister.  Like the worst kind of junkies Brandon will sacrifice meaningful relationships to keep up his habit.  His addiction defines him and anything which disrupts it drives him to some level of emotional disturbance.  When he develops an actual connection with a co-worker followed up with genuine, not compulsive, attraction, he can’t perform.  Later, when thrown into a state of embarrassment because of Sissy, Brandon tries to de-porn his apartment and the extent of his addiction is given a full frontal view.  Behind every closet door, inside every drawer, in every antiseptic nook and cranny of his living space is hard core pornography.  His apartment turns out to be no more than a giant porn bomb.  From here he begins a destructive spiral that he leads him to dark corners and dangerous behavior.

On the flip side of Fassbender’s Brandon is Mulligan’s Sissy, all reckless energy and irresponsibility.  Shame is one of young Mulligan’s best achievements yet in a brief career that deepens with each film.  Sissy’s very nature drives Brandon slightly insane.  Mulligan has just a handful of scenes but she achieves so much with just a little we can easily understand how her life of unbottled emotion terrifies Brandon.  An extended sequence where Sissy singing a disquieting version of “New York, New York” is the kind of scene people will play at retrospectives of her work 30 or 40 years from now.

Shame is filmed with a calm, calculated eye by Irish director Steve McQueen.  The movie looks and feels scrubbed of imperfections and sanitized of anything foul.  McQueen constructs his movie out of long, unbroken takes which give it a calm and observed feeling.  Though we’re watching a story about a man whose obsessed with sex, there is nothing erotic about anything.  It would be easy to label it all as distant, art house pretension on his behalf but it works well for this story of an addicted man and his repressed nature.

Shame does turn a bit too blatantly art housey as it winds down.  It seems like innumerable art house films must embrace certain cliches as Shame does.  There are no deal breaking snafus but Shame’s last 10 minutes could be culled form any number of other unsettling films about disturbed people.  The ending may leave well versed viewers of independent cinema with a feeling of deja vu but as Shame has so much to recommend in terms of performance and execution, it’s easy to forgive its conventional final moments.

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