Friday, December 16, 2011

Shames Me Not

Quick, what NC-17-rated film has had the highest financial gross since the creation of the rating in 1990? If you guessed the 1995 Paul Verhoeven title Showgirls, give yourself a pat on the back. It doesn't hurt that this particular title was been the only one with that NC-17 rating to get itself a wide release, as often filmmakers whose work get that rating will edit and change their films to try and appeal for a reduction to an R rating instead. R-rated films get to see wide release, more and better advertising and by those means a much larger potential audience, whereas one hampered by an NC-17 rating are often depicted as "niche" titles and play in New York and Los Angeles almost exclusively, with a little indie theatrical action around the country as it prepares for the upcoming awards shows. We're a long way away from 1969, when Midnight Cowboy became the only X-rated (before the porn industry stole that term) film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. These days, anything rated higher than R is considered too big a deal, and many millions of dollars end up being spent in the mad dash to appeal for that relatively more acceptable ceiling. This is why it's so refreshing to see that Shame did not undergo this same process, proudly (and perhaps a little foolhardily) wearing the adult-only patch as what director Steve McQueen called "a badge of honor, not a scarlet letter." Instead of going for leniency from a sometimes shockingly prudish ratings board in an attempt to make a film focused on sex addiction more marketable, McQueen and his crew stood by the content they had produced, confident that their storytelling methods were the only way to properly depict the issues within.

Are scarves for real? Are they a "thing" now?
Shame follows New York businessman Brandon (Michael Fassbender) as he goes through his everyday motions in New York City. From the very beginning we see that Brandon lives his life a little differently than most: between sex with random women, furious masturbation, a truly epic porn collection and even the hiring of prostitutes, Brandon seems to fill every open moment in his life with sexual fervor, and not entirely of his own volition. Obviously not comfortable with his situation, he generally avoids personal contact with others, with only married wannabe-womanizing boss David (James Badge Dale) the closest thing he has to a friend. He also ignores repeated attempts by his sister (Carey Mulligan) to make contact, not wanting to allow family back into his life. When she instead appears on his doorstep and having nowhere else to go, Brandon feels his already fragile life slipping past, and the dirty little secrets he's tried to keep hidden begin to make themselves more present and uncomfortable than they've ever been before.

One of many uncomfortable scenes in this film
Now, admit it: when you read the words "sex addiction" earlier, you chuckled a little bit, even if just on the inside. Today it seems like the word "addiction" is tossed around on a whim, but the truth is that as we learn more and more about how the human brain is wired, sex addiction is just another form of mental instability no different than alcoholism, compulsive overeating or drug addiction. When someone becomes addicted to alcohol, drugs or food (or anything, for that matter), the overriding drive behind them is the search for pleasure. Indulging in these habits causes the brain to feel so good that when those things are NOT in the system, it can cause depression and sadness, causing the afflicted to search out that great feeling once more. However, while people seem more understanding when it comes to alcohol or drug abuse (they probably know someone who suffers from those issues), sex addiction doesn't get the same respect in most circles as an actual illness. It's really no different however, as the human orgasm is among the most pleasurable feelings a person can obtain. It's no less reasonable to be infatuated with that as your emotional high as with other means, but the truth is that the idea just hasn't been around as long as other concepts. For that reason it may still be some time before sex addicts are treated on the same level as other sufferers.

"Cream in your coffee" of course takes on a whole new meaning
My whole reason behind that unexpected sociological ramble was that I was impressed how seriously Shame takes its subject matter. While the film is at times difficult to watch, it's obvious that McQueen and crew took their time making sure every detail was exactly what they wanted to portray, and accurate at that. Sex addiction is no joke, and there is very little to suggest that the cast and crew wished to do anything besides treat this problem as a real and valid issue that people face today. While there are some moments that feel a little forced (Brandon having sex with a woman in an alley underneath where someone has scrawled "fuck" on the wall, for instance), McQueen doesn't do anything without a reason. This has both positives and negatives, especially when he has Mulligan sing a painfully slow rendition of "New York, New York" that successfully transmits to the audience its intention but suffers from forcing the fake audience for whom she's performing to act like it was the greatest thing they had ever seen. There are moments throughout in which the story is a little TOO on point with its message, but thankfully these moments are few and are even balanced by truly great sequences, for instance a single-shot of Brandon running through the streets of New York just to blow off some steam.

This film likely won't get a Best Costume nomination...
If there's one more thing Shame does well, it's cementing Fassbender as one of the industry's rising stars. Fassbender has been around for a while, making his television debut in the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers, and running through innocuous smaller roles in 300, Inglourious Basterds and Jonah Hex before truly breaking out this year. Teaming up with McQueen for the first time since his acclaimed performance in 2008's Hunger, Fassbender forces himself into discussions as an obvious front runner for the Best Actor award in any award show going forward. Brandon walks that line between normal life and crippling addiction so finely, and I can't imagine any actor besides Fassbender being able to pull off the level of required subtlety to make that believable, let alone the arguably best performance by a male actor this year. Mulligan is perhaps not as inspired, but I believe that is because there wasn't enough of her. Some of the best scenes in the film feature interaction between Mulligan and Fassbender's siblings, but there could have been a few more scenes of that like to flesh out their past relationship. Her character, Cissy, is an emotionally juvenile free-spirit who is going through some issues of her own, not the least of which is an obvious codependency on others. Mulligan carries this nicely, and as I've never seen An Education this is the first instance in which I get why people appreciate her as an actress. While I do think there could have been more connecting these two interesting characters, that they have an obvious history which is not necessarily being shared is acceptable at least.

Proof that frowns are not a pretty thing
There are a few scenes in the film's late stages in which you might wonder as to how far Brandon's descent will take him, and there's one explicit and extensive sex scene which doesn't FEEL like it's faked. What results is more of the discomfort that you've felt for much of the film's run time, and it's unlikely that the great performances will ever tempt you to revisit this title anytime in the future. Still, Shame keeps hold on its credibility thanks mostly to the level of acting brought to the table by the film's exceptionally talented leads. Perhaps not destined to be one of the year's best, Shame still manages to propel itself near the top, debuting as the #9 film of 2011, just ahead of Fassbender's other 2011 titles X-Men: First Class and Jane Eyre. Michael Fassbender deserves to be a star. Thanks to this body of work on his resume, future years might see just that.

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