101 min., rated NC-17.
Sex has always been a taboo in films, even more so than violence. The MPAA will give the "Saw" and "Hostel" movies R-ratings without batting an eye, but "Shame" bears the scarlet letter of an NC-17. The fuss is unwarranted because it courageously earns it. Though the film is about sex and features enough of it, artist-turned-filmmaker Steve McQueen never exploits the content for cheap titillation but maturely and unflinchingly depicts it as a vice and addiction. Not since David Cronenberg's "Crash" has sex been portrayed in such a daringly unsexy manner.
Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender) has the life: he is handsome and well-dressed, works as a New York City financial exec, and lives in a chic West 31st Street apartment. And he's a sex addict. Brandon hires prostitutes, undresses women with his eyes on the subway, and dirties up his hard drive at work with porn, taking a break to compulsively masturbate in the public restroom. Carpal Tunnel is the least of his worries. Then his equally damaged sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), arrives unannounced and asks to stay with him. She works as a nightclub singer, but living within such close quarters, Brandon feels trapped like his own blood is weighing on his private life.
Co-written by Abi Morgan and director McQueen (2008's "Hunger," which also starred Fassbender in misery), the film never judges Brandon or Sissy. However, there's the feeling that the brother-sister relationship is more repressed on the page than it should be. Are they blocking out an abusive childhood in New Jersey? Is incest involved? We can ponder, but the film doesn't give it up. It's a story that can't possibly have an end or spell everything out with easy answers, but a little less ambiguity in certain areas might have enriched the emotional component and given us more of an understanding. Though the root of the problem is vague, Brandon's addiction is unsparingly depicted through his day-to-day life.
McQueen might be a show-off, but he's an artful show-off. Assisted by Sean Bobbitt's clean, sharp cinematography and Harry Escott's mournfully haunting music score, McQueen's virtuosity extends to a long, unbroken tracking shot along the streets of New York as Brandon goes for a late-night jog. It's a filmmaker's indulgence but an impressive one that has narrative context. Another excellent scene, where the camera very slowly inches in and doesn't cut, has Brandon and his recently separated co-worker, Marianne (Nicole Beharie), on a dinner date.
"Shame" showcases a lot of Fassbender. We don't just see the actor physically naked, but emotionally naked as well. This is a fearless, fascinating performance that deserves recognition. Fassbender shows us Brandon's self-loathing and uncontrollable urges that lead to self-destruction. He's trapped by his own weakness and can't connect with another person unless it involves sex. When he tries to consummate his relationship with Marianne, it goes nowhere because he might actually care about her. By the end, when you think Brandon might continue to be on the prowl, his facial expression is numb. As Sissy, Mulligan is far from the demure women the actress has played in "An Education" and "Never Let Me Go," and she's fully convincing and heartbreaking in the part. Her slow, sad rendition of "New York, New York" literally brings a tear to Brandon's eye, and on an even deeper level it feels like an anthem of broken dreams.
Neither character is given a lot of backstory, but Brandon is deeply troubled living a seemingly ordinary life on the surface. Sissy is also very much flawed herself, but tries to clean up her new life and help her brother when she's not pushing his buttons. She's a burden to Brandon, but as she tellingly puts it, "We're not bad people. We just come from a bad place." Fassbender and Mulligan create a history between siblings, even if their "bad place" is never fully explained, and it feels painfully real.
As a character study, "Shame" is ambiguous when it should be more insightful. It shows us a lot and tells us only a little with very few words. If it weren't for Fassbender's brave depiction of a tortured soul festered by his addiction, the film might be shallow. With him, this blistering, draining film stays with you like an STD.
Grade: A -
The Divide (2012)
122 min., rated R.
After a nuclear bomb drops and destroys the outside world, a group of tenants race down to the basement bomb shelter of their apartment building. There's Eva (Lauren German) and her emasculated boyfriend Sam (Iván González); Marilyn (Rosanna Arquette) and her daughter Wendi (Abbey Thickson); brothers Josh (Milo Ventimiglia) and Adrien (Ashton Holmes), who are as different as oil and water; Josh's punk buddy Bobby (Michael Eklund); and security guard Delvin (Courtney B. Vance). The super, Mickey (Michael Biehn), seals the door to the bunker with duct tape, forbidding anyone from opening it and exposing them to a lethal radiation dust. He makes it clear that he's in charge, having prepared a stockpile of canned food and water, blankets, and weapons but also holding out on the group with a private room. Then once some armed soldiers in biohazard suits break in, attacking the group and kidnapping Wendi, everyone slowly turns on one another and slip into degrading, violent struggles for power. Needless to say, things get Lord of the Flies, and as these survivors grow more feral and even less civilized, the dead and dying are the lucky ones.
Grim, depraved, and with more human degradation than you can shake a stick at, "The Divide" still draws us in from Gens knowing how to make an audience squirm. Of the few effective scenes, there is one notably tense sequence, where Josh puts on one of the biohazard suits and strays out to the other side, which has been sealed off with a tunnel. The sound design so carefully focuses on the character's breathing. Otherwise, Karl Mueller and Eron Sheean's screenplay paints the characterizations in broad strokes and amounts to people attacking their end-of-the-world roommates in cruel, sadistic, and base ways, shaving their heads, and literally barking like dogs. The character dynamics start as human nature deteriorating, until you can just see the director egging his cast on to cut off fingers and chop bodies into pieces.
Given that the actors ran their own asylum with some ad-libbing, the performances are credibly overwrought. German has Tough Final Girl in her veins, a role that was immediately established for her when she snipped off Roger Bart's manhood in 2007's "Hostel: Part II." Her Eva has the most compassion in these dire times and uses self-preservation to stay alive, but why are her and Sam so distant? As the cavemen-like alliance, Ventimiglia and Eklund put their lean bodies to frightening use, chewing the scenery to shreds and then spitting it out. On the distaff side, Arquette takes one for the team in a bleary, fearless act of skin-baring and naked emotion. She goes through the wringer as the benumbed Marilyn and becomes a 24-hour play thing for the scummy men.
Being a dingy film about a nuclear holocaust, it's as much of a bummer as "The Road" and "Melancholia." It disturbs, but to what end? It isn't fueled with much feeling or empathy for any of its characters. We're given musical cues to manipulate our emotions, but they aren't much use. As pleasant as eating can after can of baked beans in a cockroach-infested basement, the experience becomes awfully repetitive and unpleasant. In the end, a character escapes the basement through a septic tank. Sitting through the last hour of "The Divide" starts to feel like wading through that same waste excretion.