Masturbating in the bathroom at work. If you've ever done it, you might relate to Shame. Sex addict? Quite possible. Unable to form a relationship with another woman, even your sister? Yeah, you'll relate to Shame, the gripping new drama from director Steve McQueen.
New 'It Man' Michael Fassbender, who has statistically starred in over one hundred percent of movies released over the last year (Jane Eyre, X-Men: First Class, A Dangerous Method and now Shame, just to name a few, or all of his 2011 movies), turns in a deep, frustrating, maddening, sad, painful performance as Brandon Sullivan, a seemingly successful man trapped by his confused and uncontrollable desires. His world, consumed by random sex and prostitutes and dirty pornography and sinful masturbation, is put into disarray when his erratic but loving sister (Carey Mulligan) moves into his previously undisturbed life.
It wasn't clear until now. Critics have been drooling over Fassbender for months, if not longer. He wasn't even a household name - he still isn't - until X-Men rolled along. He was the best part about that movie, people said. Sure, he was good. No Ian McKellan, but he was good. Overrated? Just like the movie, yes. But critics kept raving about him.
It's clear now.
Michael Fassbender delivers one of the finest, if not the finest, performance of the year in Shame. His character is smooth and confident, a lady's man, but it's all a shell. A mask. Sort of like Bruce Wayne and Batman, only Batman kicks ass. His character is nothing but a guise, frightfully disconnected and yet all too human, an extremely flawed individual who doesn't know how to relate to other people on an emotional level. Fassbender embodies the role, his performance raw and angry, at those around him for being normal and directed inward for being a complete failure of a man. Fassbender is simply great.
Carey Mulligan is also excellent. Her performance too is raw, but in a completely different and complementary way. Her character has her own issues, perhaps tied to the same traumatic experience somewhere in their past, and in some ways she is the only person who knows her brother. And yet she doesn't really understand him; she can't understand why he hates her so much, why he gets angry at her for no reason. Mulligan exudes all of that without having to say a word, her glassy, always-dampened eyes speaking for her. She, too, is simply great.
Just to continue the circle jerk, Steve McQueen and co-writer Abi Morgan deserve much credit as well. Fassbender carries the movie, but Shame is a visually engrossing film, a production that takes hold in the first few seconds and never lets go. Combined with the outstanding work of cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, who worked with McQueen and Fassbender on their previous collaboration Hunger, and composer Harry Escott, Shame is one of the best movies of 2011.
Shame is nearly flawless, one of those rare movies that fire on all cylinders. Its only weakness - and it's a marginal, flash-in-the-pan weakness - is the film's final minutes, where McQueen tries to bring the movie to an emotional climax through several scenes of Fassbender not doing a whole lot but suffering through a variety of emotional states. It's not the inaction that's the problem; it's that the sequence seems just a little like a cop-out, like McQueen and Morgan weren't quite sure how to get to Point Z so they just told Fassbender to look agitated in a variety of poses and resolved to edit his expressions together in post-production. The will-he-won't-he ending is effective, but it too feels a bit like a cop-out, almost cliché.
Still, those complaints are to pick apart a superb movie, one that is so far unrivaled this year. There's still a month to go and many contenders to see, but Shame is easily one of the best movies of 2011.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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