HomeVideodrome: The Real 'Shame' Lies in Heavy-Handed Approach to Addiction

I saw Steve McQueen's "Shame" in a theater full of elderly couples. I knew going in the movie was a nice, hard NC-17, but I wasn't quite prepared for the onslaught of wall-to-wall screwing that followed. I felt almost as uncomfortable in the theater as the moment Robert De Niro takes Cybil Shepherd to a porno movie in "Taxi Driver."

When the credits rolled, the woman behind me said to her husband, "That is THE LAST time you can be trusted to pick a movie!" I saw her giving him an earful in the lobby afterward. Ouch.

Silly anecdotes aside, "Shame" is a movie that really almost got there for me, but it just barely failed to knock down all the milk bottles and take home the cuddly stuffed monkey. The film sets out to paint a portrait of naked addiction, as Michael Fassbender stars as a man with a frightening sexual appetite he feeds via pornography, as well as cold, loveless bouts of intercourse with strangers.

When his troubled sister (Carey Mulligan) moves in with him unannounced, she is treated by him not as a family member, but as a nuisance, an obstacle that gets in the way of him fulfilling his base desires in a convenient manner. Their volatile relationship is where the film is at its best, as it brilliantly illustrates what people who would otherwise be considered loved ones become when they interfere with a junkie itching for that next fix.

Everything else is rather heavy-handed, and in a few years will probably seem as camp as the material in "Requiem for a Dream" or "The Lost Weekend" appear now, as they are earlier films that were throat-grabbing depictions of addiction at the time, but now seem over-the-top with distance and age (with all due respect to the great Billy Wilder). The scenes where Fassbender's sex addict trolls the streets and subways for a careless partner reminded me of the brilliant sequence in Brian De Palma's "Dressed to Kill" in which Angie Dickinson simultaneously stalks and flirts with a stranger at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, leading to a life-altering sexual encounter.

Yet "Shame" director Steve McQueen's approach isn't as subtle or precise as De Palma's and feels too anguished in the emotions it's attempting to convey.  By the time the film reaches the third act, McQueen goes into overdrive, applying an art-house power-drill to the audiences' skull. Though it's never as violent as what Darren Aronofsky did in "Requiem," it's every bit as overwrought.

Fassbender's performance is excellent as always; he has earned his stripes as a respected leading man in both mainstream and art-house films. Mulligan is normally a non-entity in movies, but she provides the film with its most tense, explosive moments. It feels as though she and Fassbender are going to burst into flames at any moment and destroy each other. It would've been nice if McQueen had gotten out of the way and let the actors explore the themes, because they do such a magnificent job when he isn't showing off.

"Shame" is ultimately worth seeing for the work they do, in spite of its directorial showboating.

Available on Blu-ray/DVD combo, and Amazon Instant

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This article originally appeared over at Parcbench.


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