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Michael Fassbender in Overhyped "Shame"

by Caryn James
November 30, 2011 9:30 AM
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Fassbender Mulligan

Steve McQueen’s dark-and-richly-photographed, descent-into-hell Shame is, I suspect, exactly the film he wanted to make, and I respect and admire him for that. But it arrives with such hyperbolic praise, you might want to lower your expectations. The film is likely to leave viewers unsatisfied and empty,  and not in a way that reflects the emotionally-tortured, sex-addicted character Michael Fassbender plays so powerfully. Shame is not really that daring; nudity on screen isn’t exactly hard to find.  And while, scene-for-scene, it is effective and intense, The film doesn’t come close to being a fully realized drama. McQueen and Fassbender offer episodes from a character’s life, which is no replacement for the sense of character the film sets us up to expect. 

The details of that character’s life are dutifully in place: Brandon lives in a Chelsea high-rise and  works in another high-rise, where his computers is loaded with such disgusting porn even  his sleazy boss (James Badge Dale) is more shocked than impressed. McQueen gets to the point right away: there’s full-frontal Fassbender, and an encounter with a call girl that for a few seconds seems erotic – he seems to enjoy himself – but we quickly learn that his obsession has so overtaken him that dinner is Chinese takeout in front of a porn site.

This might have been enough if all McQueen wanted was a portrait of an addict, but he changes the dynamics by bringing in Brandon’s sister, Sissy (really? Sissy?) played by Carey Mulligan. Brandon has been avoiding her, apparently because he’s afraid of getting too close  - or maybe already has. She’s damaged too, penniless, throwing herself easily at men. And she inexplicably gets a gig as a singer, apparently so McQueen can let Mulligan do "New York New York" as a sad ballad that brings tears to her brother’s eyes.

Fassbender and Mulligan give fierce performances, although their roles seem calculated to evoke the adjective “brave.” And as both plunge even further into self-destruction, the film creates tension as we wait to see whether the siblings fall into bed together.

But after McQueen sets up this family drama – no one made him do it – he refuses to tells us much about the family.  We know where Fassbender’s accent comes from; he says that his immigrant parents settled in New Jersey when he was a boy. Near the end, when a distraught Sissy leaves him a phone message, saying, “We’re not bad people. We just come from a bad place,” all I could think of was “Does she mean New Jersey?” Truly, no offense to New Jersey; we just don’t know anything more about this pair. How did they get so damaged? And shouldn’t we have a clue why Brandon is addicted to sex, rather than drugs or alcohol or stamp collecting? No use arguing that McQueen chooses not to tell us; he brought the question on himself.  It would be good if Shame rescued its NC-17 rating from its porn-dweller status, elevating it to the mark of a real, adult film. But being adult doesn’t make the drama work.

The serious narrative flaws are surprising because McQueen shares writing credits with Abi Morgan, who wrote the terrific BBC series The Hour as well as The Iron Lady. But McQueen’s earlier work was in visual and video art, and  his features veer more toward performance art than narrative film. That approach worked better in Hunger, with Fassbender wasting away in prison as IRA martyr Bobby Sands; the real Sands’ story filtered in enough so that the hunger strike on screen had a meaningful background.

The film worth seeing for Fassbender’s wrenching portrait, but it feels as if McQueen is  straining to add a story he’s clearly not invested in. And is he doesn’t care, why should we?  

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  • YNot | December 20, 2012 11:30 PMReply

    Finally a review that's square with exactly movie I saw. The performances were stellar but it doesn't make up for that overwhelming EMPTY feeling this movie leaves you with.

    Much ado over nothing- best way to describe this film. Sometimes movies are purposely vague and while I don't every dot connected I can't jump on the bandwagon of praise for this disaster of a movie. It did leave me a Fastbender fan so I guess I got something positive from my viewing experience.

  • chyti | January 24, 2012 8:04 AMReply

    Maybe I watched and entirely different movie, or maybe I don't need to be told every point. Taking jabs on the sister being called Sissy which is probably a nickname, maybe you just didn't understand the film which is alright but really New Jersey, come on.

    Your opinion is yours, I am just glad that the majority of film goers pay no heed to critics.

  • Nadine | February 23, 2012 11:56 AM

    Sissy is an EXTREMELY common name and nickname in the UK as well as its some of its commonwealth nations. Personally, I had about 4 aunts named Sissy, not biological but batchmates of my parents. Caryn, that point was off-base. BTW the film was one of the year's best imho and I'm a prude.

  • fdsafd | January 9, 2012 7:13 AMReply

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  • MJ | December 4, 2011 7:45 PMReply

    laughable review.

  • lil nut | December 4, 2011 6:52 AMReply

    this most honest, accurate and fair review of this film on the internet. kudos caryn james!

  • gerard kennelly | December 3, 2011 3:45 PMReply

    the last time an irish man was nominated best actor
    it was liam neeson for schindlers list

    fassbender is the best performance this year full stop
    he will win

  • bugaloo | December 3, 2011 12:55 AMReply

    Wow, everyone is so happy to go from Zero to Maximum Insulting just because they disagree with a review. For what it's worth, I've seen this movie and hers is the first review I totally agree with. But I'm not going to go around calling everyone who disagrees with that opinion stupid. Because, folks, it's an OPINION, and no view of art is definitive.

  • sam | December 2, 2011 6:05 PMReply

    Caryn did you get your college degree from the Copa Cabana School of Dramatic Arts? Because you sound like you don't have a clue what you're talking about.

  • Cameron C | December 2, 2011 10:21 AMReply

    why don't you edit your piece before ripping someon else's apart?

  • Davey | December 2, 2011 6:11 AMReply

    Are most audiences going to see this movie based on hype? I don't really know or care. Only if you read the Internet would you think the movie was "overhyped." I saw the movie in Toronto last September and was impressed by the acting and the conviction of the filmmaker. How does James conclude that the filmmaker doesn't care about what he is filming. I seriously doubt the director would agree with James.

  • michaeldowney | December 2, 2011 1:15 AMReply

    How in the world does he even have a VISA to work in this country? I bet if his exgirlfriend was white and not colored. He would be in a Los Angeles jail. Sad for our children if he gets an Oscar, we should not promote role models like this. SHAME on Michael Fassbender!!!


    Fassbender Inteview for Vanity Fair Italy

    He’s born in Heidelberg, Germany, the city of philosophers, but he says to be «quite ignorant in all fields». He is a skillful and brave player, capable of facing challenging roles such as Carl Gustav Jung in A Dangerous Method by David Cronenberg (coming out September 30th) but he doesn’t bore people with great theories on the job of the actor. He’s nice and self-ironic: a deadly combination, especially after seeing him naked in Steve McQueen’s movie Shame, for which he won the Coppa Volpi in Venice.

    Isn’t that the next time we’ll meet you’ll become hateful?
    «Don’t worry, it won’t happen. And why should I? I won’t achieve Robert Pattinson’s fame. I’m not interesting for 14 year-old girls. I have a more reduced and polite fan base. And luckily, because I would be embarrassed».

    Nudity on stage, on the contrary, no embarrassment?
    «I’d be a liar if I say no. Especially in regard to Shame where I’m not only naked, but I masturbate and have sex all the time. But I can say to be used to the absence of clothes. My first job has been a commercial for SAS airline. I was naked there too».

    Talk to me about your family.
    «When I was 2, my parents moved to Killarney, in Ireland, my mother’s country (his dad’s German), where they ran a restaurant for almost 20 years. Now they’re retired. I arrived in Venice for the Festival with my father after a long tour trough Italy by motorbike. My parents, although they’re not involved in the world of cinema, are really near. In fact, my mother is happy that I undress. She always says “Why is it always women and not men?”. Though I would have been uncomfortable if we had seen Shame together. It’s strong, even for her».

    What about your first play?
    «I was 17, it was one of Cinderella’s stepsister in a school play».

    With wig?
    «I didn’t need it! I was a metal guitarist, I had very long hair».

    So did you want to be a musician?
    «Yes, I wanted became like Kirk Hammett from Metallica. But I was really bad. Once with a group of friend we tried to play in a pub, but they pulled the amplifiers because we were making such a row and customers were complaining. That’s why I gave myself to the theater. When I was 18 I produced, directed and payed Reservoir Dogs, based on Quentin Tarantino’s movie».

    Who, years later, took you for Inglorious Basterds. But the director that really found you is the video-artist Steve McQueen who introduced you in Hunger, where you play the irish activist Bobby Sands, died after a hunger strike. And then, there’s Shame, still McQueen’s. What did you know about sexual-addiction?
    «The first time I heard about it was a couple of years ago, it concerned Michael Douglas. I thought it was some bullshit, a luxury for those few lucky people that have too many easy people. Now I know that, only in the States, there are 24 millions people who suffer [from it] and that spend hours masturbating, watching porn on the net and don’t have sex with their wives».

    Before studying the topic, what did you know about porn?
    «It exist, it’s ok! (burst out laughing). Well, that there’s porn is normal, because instinct to sex is primary, it is at the base of the survival specie. For human beings, it’s a persistent thought, conscious or unconscious. The bad aspect is the amount of violence in pornography today, especially against women. And, frankly, it disturbs me that even for selling a cereal box are used half-naked women».

    What is the boundary between criticizing the commercial use of sex and moralism?
    «I’m against all kind of censor. We must rely on adults’ personal responsibility. And I think so for drugs too, every type of drugs: I’d legalize everything, I’d tax them and put on warnings about risks and consequences. Like on cigarettes packs».

    After being briefly engaged with Zoe Kravitz, met on the set of X-men, you’re single now. Is it okay like this or do you think to start a family one day?
    «You’re wondering why, coming from an “all right” family, I’m still a wretch?»

    I would never dare.
    «Anyway, yes, I’d like wife and children. But I’m too selfish and too much in my job to give myself in a serious relationship. Not that I like it, but I learned at my cost that in certain moments you can’t have it all».

    From Ryan Gosling’s interview

    Many, in Venice, would have see you receiving the Coppa Volpi. At the end won your only real rival: Michael Fassbender.
    «I’t was right giving it to him. When I knew of his frontal nude, I thought: damn it, there’s no competition for me».

    Read more at ONTD:

  • Jamie Braddock | December 2, 2011 1:42 AM

    Natalie, does your "style over content" comment also apply to films like Stanley Kubrick's 2001 and David Lynch's Mulholland Drive? I think in certain circumstances, "Less Is More".

    Also as an aside, something alarming I've noticed is that of all the negative reviews I've read for this film, the majority are from women. Are we really at a point in our society where if a director doesn't spoon-feed a female audience throughout a film they shutdown and become unreceptive towards to said film? That probably explains the existence of films like Confessions of a Shopaholic, Sex and the City 2 and Bride Wars

  • Natalie Harris | December 1, 2011 12:35 PMReply

    I'm with the reviewer on this one, and I am not a fan of Katherine Heigel films.. not even sure how to spell her name. This was style over content. If we are to take the film seriously and invest in the characters we had to be given at least some reason to care for them. Just because it is Fassbender and Mulligan is not enough. Steve McQueen is the emperor's new clothes for me.

  • Dr. Mindy Melonchest | December 1, 2011 4:02 AMReply

    Oh Caryn James, fuck off and go watch a Katherine Heigl rom-com. At least in that, the plot and each character's back story and motivation will be explicitly explained to you as if you were a small child and there won't be any complexity or subtext or themes to sour your movie watching experience.

    Or no wait, let me explain this film to you as if you were a small child...

    Brandon calls his sister Sissy because that was most likely a nickname she had as a kid. They both still use that nickname to convey to the audience that they are both still emotionally lodged in that period of their lives because that's when they were both sexually abused, which probably led to him abusing her.

    Brandon doesn't cry because her singing is beautiful, he cries because in that moment he sees what a sad desperately broken human being she is and realizes that it's all his fault.

    When Sissy leaves Brandon a phone message, saying, “We’re not bad people. We just come from a bad place,” she isn't referring to New Jersey, she's talking about the abuse they suffered as children and the abusive home they grew up in. And the reason all you could think of was “Does she mean New Jersey?” is because you're a moron.

    Shouldn't we have a clue why Brandon is addicted to sex? Yes, that clue is played by Carey Mulligan.

  • Dr. Mindy Melonchest | December 5, 2011 3:29 AM

    Oh trust me, LIL PEEN, I'm quite comfortable with public confrontations. And in regards to my imminent "ass whipping", I'd like to see your try.

  • lil nut | December 4, 2011 7:01 AM

    mindy, your reaction to this review is a little over-the-top, don't ya think? you might wanna check that ugliness you're spewing. it aint cool. it aint nice. and it's disrespectful to the point of warranting an ass whipping. don't be a coward hiding behind a computer screen spitting nonsense that you'd never have the balls to say to someone's face. chill.

  • Kym | December 1, 2011 8:07 AM

    I love you!, Thank your for explaining to Caryn James, her review was so ridiculous!! People with a brain and a fascination for thought provoking movies don't need every detail explained to them.

  • Kym | December 1, 2011 8:07 AM

    I love you!, Thank your for explaining to Caryn James, her review was so ridiculous!! People with a brain and a fascination for thought provoking movies don't need every detail explained to them.

  • Cyril Figgis | November 30, 2011 10:41 AMReply

    I don't know. Although I agree the intense praise runs the risk of creating impossible expectations - this review sounds like your criticizing the film more for what it wasn't than what it was.

    Art film has always been about finding the story through the visuals and not through direct narrative or exposition. The story is there - you just have to look for it.

    There also seems to be an interesting trend among reviews that point out Steve McQueen's visual arts background as a segue into their issues with the film. I almost never see this when the filmmakers comes from a literary, screenwriting or journalism background.

    I think a lot of the negative reviews are stemming from the fact that (like Drive earlier this year) critics are almost being TOLD they have to like the film due to the intense internet hype. It's a natural reaction and not one I blame them for.

    I recommend trying your best to go into this film with a clear head and an open mind. Pour out the hype from your head and enjoy the journey.

  • CYRIL FIGGIS | November 30, 2011 3:36 PM

    Well - if it is indeed your opinion that current western sexual culture is a direct result of late capitalist social construction than yes, my statement would be ironic. But what I find more ironic is that the execution of the film (which this particular critic took issue with) attempted to present a universal truth rather than an objective one. Hence the absence of a narrative that would have spelled out exactly why the character's behavior was "socially abnormal." In The Jersey Shore it's incredibly evident where their social ineptitude stems from :)

  • DJAY | November 30, 2011 2:40 PM

    Again, the irony is that you consider this 'intellectual' , a consecrated critique of the Jersey Shore's of the world. You're more than entitled to your opinion, but it proves the postmodern conundrum does it not?

  • CYRIL FIGGIS | November 30, 2011 11:39 AM

    @DJAY In this day and age of media, advertising, reality TV and "all the rest" an intellectual perspective is exactly what (I think) we need. I don't want western sexual culture solely represented by The Jersey Shore and Miller Light ads. But that could just be my elitism speaking.

  • DJay | November 30, 2011 11:08 AM

    @Cyril -- the very notion of "pouring out the hype" from one's head is a conundrum. Of course viewers come in with biases, a set of presumptions, expectations, etc. as they should. And in this day and age, can that be separated from reviews, critics, media and marketing hype machines that frame and lionize filmmakers for --- what else but to feed their own ego, elitism and indulgence (don't forget awards campaigns and the obvious making your dollars back)?

    That said ... as if we're not sex starved / sex dulled / sex immersed enough with media, advertising, reality TV and all the rest, do we really need another 'intellectual' perspective or reflection put back upon us as some sort of pseudo-raw "imaginative meditation?" Epic pass. But that must be my thick and hyped head speaking ...

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