REVIEW: ‘Shame.” The Only Living Boy In New York.

Will Leitch
·Editor

1. The New York City of "Shame" is a place so cold, so distanced, so removed from flesh-and-blood humanity, that it's the only place a man like Brandon can truly be alone. It couldn't be more removed from the New York of "Taxi Driver" if it took place on Mars. That New York had streets filled with Travis Bickle's scum; this New York is filled with nothing, just millions of individual slivers of lost souls, running away, hiding in plain sight, all by themselves. This isn't much like the New York City I know and live in, but it's how the city can feel, how oddly comforting it can be to know that, in a city of seven million, you could disappear for days, weeks, months, and no one would ever notice. This is all Brandon, tortured by anguish of an unknown, but clearly devastating, origin, wants: to vanish completely, to try feel something other than pain. He does it through constant sexual stimulation. This does not provide him much comfort.

2. Brandon, as played by Michael Fassbender, is handsome in a sort of theoretical, two-dimensional way, a perfect surface with nothing underneath. Nothing he'd ever let anyone see, anyway. He works an anonymous, awful corporate job during the day and spends his nights either searching for women to lure back to his clinical, antiseptic Gramercy Park apartment or, if that's too much trouble (or even if it's not), firing up the most intense online pornography he can find. (In a nice touch, he has paid video sex chats often enough with one online denizen that she's already naked for him by the time he signs on his laptop.) Something awful happened to Brandon at some point, and the film never lets us see what it is, or even implies it all that much; we just look at Fassbender, and we know this guy is broken. And then his sister shows up.

3. Sissy, played by Carey Mulligan, is as damaged as Brandon, but has taken the exact opposite approach to dealing with it; she's so desperate for a connection with something, anything, that her life is a series of one poorly thought-out, lunging decision after another. The siblings' shared secret, once mercifully never shared with the audience, has given them an unbreakable bond ... and of course for something to be unbreakable, you must test it by trying to destroy it. Brandon's meticulous -- if not necessarily careful -- life begins to crumble, and his sister's falls even farther. Somehow, being together reminds them of what they're hiding from, whatever it is. Even when Brandon tries to play it straight, going out with a real, live woman, it falls apart. Being alone is the only priority. And the sister isn't making that easy.

4. On a purely cinematic level, "Shame" is a massive experience to behold. Director Steve McQueen's approach, in a strange way, isn't light years' different than Nicolas Winding Refn's in "Drive;" have one real point, don't dig much deeper than that and let your overflowing filmmaking skill (and striking setting, LA in "Drive" and NYC in "Shame") carry you the rest of the way. The sweeping, despairing score makes you feel like Brandon's more lost than even he comprehends, and the movie has one staggering set piece after another, from Mulligan's mournful solo of "New York, New York" at a nightclub to a breathtaking midnight run through crowded city streets to a Brandon's final Dante descent, a screaming plea to feel something, anything. Oh, and about the sex: Let it be known that this is not one of those "Blue Valentine" why-did-this-movie-get-a-NC-17? again movies. There is lots of sex in this film, and even though it does fall prey again to the 21st century movie rule that sex is not allowed to be fun, there's never a time when if feels extraneous or even the point of all this. So much of this is due to Fassbender, who conveys so much in his eyes and pallor that the movie doesn't need to spell anything out. This man needs help. It's a thunderous performance. Much has been made of the McQueen-Fassbender relationship (previously established in "Hunger") and that Fassbender might be McQueen's DeNiro. I don't know if McQueen's ready to be mentioned in the same breath as Scorsese, but Fassbender is the real deal. In the span of about 13 months, he has become the most compelling working actor, by a considerable margin.

5. Occasionally, McQueen hints at the psychological trauma inflicted upon these siblings, and I'm not sure it's necessary. And in a roundabout way, there is something little thematically pat about dealing with mental illness in the way Brandon does; it feels like something that happens more in movies by filmmakers looking for a grittier, apocalyptic emotional feel than it happens, you know, in life. It's also a bit pat, particularly in the way the Sissy storyline is resolved. But "Shame," as a sensory experience, as a bravura, almost show-offy piece of filmmaking, more than makes up for that; these are the sort of flaws you find yourself digging for after the movie's over. After you've caught your breath. After the movie's spell is broken. After you're safely away, not alone, anymore. There probably isn't much hope for Brandon. The saddest thing is, in the film's final shot, you find yourself rooting for him, in spite of it all, in spite of the fact that he's doomed. We know it, and so does he.

Grade: A-