I like movies that not only move me, but leave me thinking and Shame definitely did that. Shame, directed by Steve McQueen features Michael Fastbender as Brandon, a good looking and seemingly successful 30-something businessman living in Manhattan, who is an avid sex addict with an equally dysfunctional younger sister Sissy played by Carey Mulligan. Both are excellent in this movie.
At first glance Shame appears to be all about the horror of addiction and leaves the viewer wondering if there could be some sort of incest between the two siblings. On further contemplation, however, I felt this was a movie about childhood abuse and the different ways that such abuse manifests in both genders later in life.
It is clear from the start that Brandon and Sissy suffer from two sides of the same coin. It does not take much to gauge that they have both probably been abused in their childhoods, perhaps sexually. However, while Michael’s coping mechanisms is to punish himself by not engaging in any real meaningful relationships with women through his addiction to cheap sex, porn and prostitutes, Sissy is all about the lack of boundaries, needy to the point of desperation, full of self hate (her arms are a battle field of self inflicted cuts) and the need to merge with men for lack of a sense of self, in other words a typical borderline female.
Early on in the movie we realize two things. Brandon is defined by his sexual addiction on the one hand and his need for control on the other. He lives in a very orderly Manhattan sky rise bachelor pad with its cold off-putting minimalist decor, which hints at this character’s empty emotional state. He eats cold Chinese food left over’s out of the box. When he leaves the apartment he walks around in his tell-tale controlled uniform… a trench coat and scarf and after an initial scene with a prostitute and the need to immediately masturbate the morning after, we realize that his addiction has gone so far as to evade his office space. His computer has been taken away because the hard drive has been infected by viruses from all the porn he has been downloading.
Now enter Sissy, his younger sister, who practically breaks into his apartment. Brandon catches her in the shower and she makes no effort to hide her nudity leaving the viewer thinking “what the hell?” Quickly she takes over his one bed room apartment. Much to Brandon’s disgust, her belongings are strewn all over his living room and through the course of the movie she invades all his personal space even attempting to crawl in bed with him to snuggle after just having slept with HIS boss in HIS apartment. This is the first time we see Brandon rage and scream as he tells her to get out of his room, which sends her running like a scared child, another hint perhaps as to what this woman might have been subjected to as a child.
For Brandon who is all about control and emotional detachment, her presence in his cramped apartment becomes agony and the anger becomes almost uncontrollable to the point where he has to jog in the middle of the night in the streets of New York to alleviate himself from all the negative emotions that are surfacing and his disdain for what he perceives to be her weakness and emotional vulnerability after she sleeps with his sleazy womanizing boss after the most unimaginative of pick-up lines: “Your dress looks great on you.”
Brandon tells his sister she is suffocating him and he wants her gone, which leads her to attempt suicide at the end of the movie, but not before leaving him a voice mail saying “we aren’t bad people Brandon. We just come from a bad place.” Like the typical victim this statement reads more like a question: who is the bad one? Are we bad or is the perpetrator bad? The constant need to define good versus evil, black vs. white.
Brandon, despite his sexual addiction, is not a sociopath. He wants to have an intimate relationship with a woman, but he is as screwed up if not more than his sister and is simply unable to do so. In the midst of all the porn, masturbation and prostitutes, he develops a genuine affection for a colleague at work.
There is a telling scene right before Brandon enters the restaurant on what is to be their first date. He hesitates not knowing whether or not to go in, but can see her through the window sitting at the table waiting for him. In that moment we realize how hard it is for him to really take that step towards real intimacy. Finally, he brings himself to go in, but the date is tense with Brandon admitting his longest relationship was only four months and sharing his views that marriage is nothing more than a man and a woman sitting in a restaurant unable to talk to one another out of boredom. His colleague offers an opposing view by saying “maybe they are so connected they don’t need to talk.”
Despite his emotional immaturity, the date is not a complete disaster and Brandon wants to see her again. Unfortunately from this point on events take a rapid turn for the worse.
After a passionate scene where he kisses her at the office the next day and whisks her off to a hotel with a gorgeous view of the Hudson River for a day-time tryst, he is unable to perform sexually. Since he genuinely likes this woman on some level, he becomes impotent after what appears to be emotionally charged foreplay.
Brandon abruptly gets up from the bed and looks miserable as he stares out of the hotel window. When his colleague tries to comfort him to no avail and then says “shall I go?” he says “yes go” and can only alleviate his inner turmoil by calling a prostitute and engaging once again in meaningless sex, but this time without any hang-ups or inability to perform.
By the end of the movie, his addiction becomes so out of control that he ends up hitting on a woman with a boyfriend at a bar, having sex with a man in a dodgy New York underground night club and then ending the night with a ménage a trios with two random women from which he really gets no pleasure.
I found the movie’s ending particularly powerful, though for some it could appear anti climactic. In the beginning of the movie we see Brandon eyeing an attractive, but very much married woman on a subway, who is at first flattered by the attention, but then becomes embarrassed and runs away from the subway platform. At the end of the movie, he is back to square one. He is again sitting on the subway train with a similar looking red head with a very obvious wedding ring, who stares at him with no sense of bashfulness unlike the woman in the first encounter.
Despite all the shame and self disgust that Brandon feels towards his sexual addiction, he is back in the loop and unable to break the vicious cycle. The viewer can only guess that he will bed this woman if there were to be a next scene.
There is no trite Hollywood ending here where he is miraculously cured and able to become a functioning member of society. We can only hope that as he hits rock bottom time and again he will finally be able to save himself and get the help he so desperately needs if only he could take a real hard raw look at himself.