'Shame' Review: Solid Character Study of Two Fractured Siblings

Late in the new movie “Shame,” the main character’s sister tells her brother that “we’re not bad people. We just come from a bad place.” That place — the people and the circumstances that made them who they are – is never discussed in the film. But the consequences of it are abundantly clear in this tale of a sex addict who begrudgingly lets his sister move into his home.

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Michael Fassbender, who surprised viewers earlier this year with portrayal of Magneto in “X-Men: First Class,” plays Brandon Sullivan. Brandon begins the story lying in bed, looking as alone and sad as he usually is. He’s addicted to sex in all forms. And he has no power to control that addiction. Even when x-rated images and videos are found on his work computer, he can’t seem to confront his own misdeeds. He’s okay letting his supervisor blame a lowly intern for the sickening images he gawks at during work.

Early on, Brandon’s sister Sissy, played by a captivating Carey Mulligan, arrives in town. She just suffered a bad break up and asks her brother if she can stay with him for a few days. Brandon reluctantly agrees, but he’s accustomed to a quiet life in his sparse apartment. He has female guests over, but they usually only stay a few hours at a time. Sissy’s presence abruptly throws his life off track.

Directed by Steve McQueen, the wonderfully-shot “Shame” has a coldness that’s hard to define. Viewers get to see the characters but never fully understand them or the pain they feel. The story plays itself out, barely judging the characters. It simply watches them.

Brandon may ignores Sissy’s phone calls early in the film, but the two share a strangely intimate relationship. When Brandon walks into his bathroom to find his sister taking a shower, a normal conversation occurs between them. There’s no shock value in seeing Sissy naked. The two simply talk despite the fact that she is completely nude. Later on, Brandon starts wrestling his sister while only wearing a towel around his waist.

Despite the massive amounts of nudity in this NC-17-rated film, this story is about something much more engaging. It’s about two fractured people trying to survive in a world that seems alien to them. It’s a character study with two strong actors in leading roles.

It’s difficult to really enjoy “Shame” but it’s hard not to appreciate it. It’s a dark movie about a sensitive subject but it manages to create compelling characters. It doesn’t simply exist to push boundaries although with an NC-17 rating it does push them. The movie exists to tell a story about two distinct people who–somehow along the line–becomes de-sensitized to societal norms.

Written by Steve McQueen and Abi Morgan, “Shame” is a well-crafted and interesting story to watch. It’s not a great movie, but it’s a good one for mature adults intrigued by the subject material.

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