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Friday, December 16, 2011

Shame (Limited Release Date: 12-2-2011)

        A lot of 2011's best movies have been the hardest to watch. Unlike last year, where mainstream Hollywood releases like The Social Network, Inception, and True Grit managed to tell meaningful, compelling stories while still appealing to the masses, this season has seen tinseltown provide next to nothing of real heft or bravery. That task has been left almost exclusively to a few very daring, very divisive Independent pictures, such as Martha Marcy May Marlene, Take Shelter, and The Tree of Life. What do all of these movies have in common? They all have a profundity and clarity of vision, but they can also prove difficult to sit through (I personally don't really feel this way about Tree, but I see where it comes from). And so, as 2011 wraps up, we enter another weekend where millions of people will be checking out the new Alvin at the Chipmunks movie, while the smartest movie-goers squirm impatiently through the powerful, difficult Shame.

        Brandon (Michael Fassbender) is a man with a problem: He's hopelessly, debilitatingly addicted to sex. His computers, both at home and at work, are littered with a thousand dirty downloads, and many of hims nights are spent with some paid company. This life of debauchery of put on hold with the arrival of Sissy (Carey Mulligan), his externally peppy and clearly troubled sister. Their interactions, alternating between natural and strained, cause confusion and frustration in both of their lives, and lead them to some extreme situations.

        This is only Director Steve McQueen's second movie, and it confirms beyond any doubt that he is a talent that ought to be celebrated. As if his first feature, the masterful, troubling Hunger, weren't evidence enough, McQueen uses Shame to put on an utter tutorial of how much can be said with mere visuals. His eye, along with that of cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, is observant and unwavering, lingering on single takes for long enough to allow scenes between actors to develop, capturing the beauty and allure of swanky New York living while subliminally depicting its wretched emptiness. The film wants nothing more than to turn the screws on you, and it does this with ease. Those without the stomach for extreme intensity and unabashed, prolonged sexuality (the movie's NC-17 rating is well warranted) would be better off skipping this one, though it would be a shame for them to miss two of the year's finest performances.

        Fassbender has had a terrific year, beginning with Jane Eyre, and proceeding through X-Men: First Class, and A Dangerous Method, but this has to be his most shining moment. Many parts of the movie seem to operate almost exclusively because the man is so utterly magnetic, wholly and completely convincing as a charmer, a monster, and a woefully lost soul. Mulligan is no less impressive, shedding every last inch of the, 'polite, innocent British Girl,' with whom she has made her name, replacing her with someone damaged, mangled, and true. The way that McQueen captures their interactions, as well as the interactions of everyone else in the film, has a real, 'fly on the wall,' feeling to it, coming off as naturally as if you were watching them in person.

       As part of a bigger film community, Shame gives us a lot to look forward to. Mulligan loses herself in the role so thoroughly that she'll never be looked at as a one-note thespian again. McQueen establishes himself as one of the truly essential young voices in the world of film. And Fassbender only continues to pile it on, one sensational performance after another, and the fact that he seems primarily interested on working with young and/or impassioned film-makers (McQueen, Cary Fukunaga, David Cronenberg) bodes well for a lengthy, extraordinary career. But more than that, Shame is an up-close, no-holds-barred examination of addiction at it's most dominant. There's hardly any story here, arguably even enough to fill its modest 101 minute runtime, but the feeling and the ambience of the film is both unsettling and unshakable. 2011: The year where movies were meant to be marveled at, not enjoyed.

Grade: A-

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