Written by Steve McQueen and Abi Morgan
Directed by Steve McQueen
Brandon is an executive and bachelor living in New York City. He is a sex addict in the same way alcoholics regularly drink yet find creative ways to hide their addiction from the people around them. Brandon’s life is an empty shell of one-night stands, encounters with sex workers, and a near constant consumption of internet porn. The one thing that could pull him into a moment of self-realization is his younger sister, Sissy, a lounge singer who aimlessly travels without ever planting roots. Sissy is similarly in relationships that go nowhere and seems to want closure with Brandon over some unexplained events in their past. Brandon is obsessed with proving to people that their intimacy and commitments are meaningless, but this pursuit is leading him down a dark and broken path.
Shame is one of those acting forward movies that hit me right in my wheelhouse. Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan are performing at the top of their craft here, acting in a story that isn’t something brand new. There are plenty of movies about addictions of all kinds, including sex addiction, but the performances being delivered are a masterclass. Sissy insists that Brandon come to see her sing and he finally gives in. He arrives at the lounge near the top of some skyscraper in Manhattan and settles in with a drink. Sissy performs a melancholy version of “New York, New York” that completely recontextualizes that song. It’s at this moment that film, using only the lyrics of that song, unfolds everything we need to know about the status of Brandon and Sissy’s relationship.
In this rendition of “New York, New York” we’re hearing the empty declarations of a broken woman who wants to escape a place that has shattered her. New York City is a place that she can remake herself, where shame and abuse can be washed away, so she never has to think about it anymore. She will be loved and accepted; she will be famous and adored. As Sissy slowly works her way through the song, the camera cuts to Brandon whose eyes well up with tears. He both empathizes with his sister’s pain and shares it. Later on, in two different scenes, we learn that Brandon and Sissy’s family immigrated to the States when he was a teenager and as Sissy says, “We’re not bad people. We just come from a bad place.”
My reading of the film is that a friend and family member sexually abused these siblings. I think this abuser made them have sex with each other. This is supported by the strange and manic way Brandon and Sissy go from being utterly casual about seeing each other naked to Brandon exploding with Sissy climbs into bed with him. They’ve never processed their trauma and therefore seek out intimacy with others that are destined to crumble quickly.
Director Steve McQueen is not afraid to explore the raw reality of his characters’ situations, and this often leads to intentionally uncomfortable and jarring scenes. Shame is an explicit film, but you can’t honestly tell this story without showing the ugliness. McQueen also continues his phenomenal collaboration with Michael Fassbender, a director-actor team that meshes beautifully. I’ve seen this and their previous work Hunger and was astonished by both. Later this year I’ll be watching 12 Years A Slave, and I already know it’ll be fantastic. You know you are watching a great film done by talented creators when the first 10 minutes are near wordless yet communicate everything you need to know about the main character.
Shame is a film that should leave you feeling dirty and even more importantly, numb. Brandon reaches a psychological and emotional threshold where he’s overloaded and therefore seems not to feel anything. There’s a striking image in the final scene as a subway is reflected in glass and we see a mirrored train moving in the opposite direction. Two paths lay before the protagonist. His life can continue in the cycle that destructive addictions always seem to take or he can try to get clean. The film doesn’t tell us what Brandon does next and is all the better for it. We need to sit with this nuanced and affecting story and decide where we believe Brandon goes next.