Ever since their introduction into the Hollywood system, those four little syllables of "PG-13" have been the target of pretty much every studio-funded film with a significant budget. The PG-13 level of objectionable content is considered the perfect happy medium, with just enough to shock and amuse children, but without enough to seriously offend adults or parents. Get a PG rating (or even worse, a G rating) and you risk driving away anyone over the age of twelve who isn't a parent. Get an R rating and there goes most -- if not all -- of the under-18 crowd. And God help you if your film gets stuck with an NC-17.
Though studios have been known to bend the rules and push the limits of an R rating, precious few studios have ever dared risk the MPAA's kiss of death. Not only will an NC-17 instantly drive away all but the most mature and forgiving moviegoers, but -- much like R-rated "red-band" trailers -- most theater chains will refuse to show them. Such is the power of the MPAA, not to mention the paranoia regarding so-called "moral" activists.
But now the times are changing.
First came the invention of unrated DVDs, which granted audience members a chance to see their favorite studio horror films with all the gore and nudity that an R rating wouldn't allow. Then came the Internet, where red-band trailers can be freely distributed right alongside their green-band brethren. Both of these advents were enough to show that the current ratings system is growing outdated and toothless.
Still, it's going to take a long time for a few home video phenomena to affect any real change. What's really going to do the job are movies like Shame.
Not only was this film made with such prominent rising talents as Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan, but it's a film that was made to embrace its NC-17 rating, backed by a respectable studio (Fox Searchlight) that enthusiastically supported the film and worked to get it distributed, the MPAA and all the studio chains be damned. Best of all, it's a film that debated to tremendous critical acclaim and awards buzz. After seeing the film, I'm glad to report that the rating and the positive response are well-deserved.
The movie is a character study of Brandon Sullivan, played by Fassbender. More specifically, the movie is about Brandon's life as a sex addict. He masturbates constantly (even at work!), there are porn mags and sex toys in every corner of his apartment, and he frequently makes use of the finest prostitutes in New York.
Perhaps more importantly, Brandon is one of those rare few guys who are handsome and charismatic enough that they can walk up to any girl, say that sex is happening, and it happens. Yet he's worthless at an actual dinner date and he can't talk to a girl that he has any sincere feelings for. The reason for both is very simple: He's emotionally bankrupt.
For Brandon, casual sex is an end in itself. It isn't just that he doesn't care about the women he beds, it's that he can't care about them. Guy's a complete sociopath, and the walls he's built up around him are the film's primary focus through much of the running time.
As the movie's title would imply, Brandon's character arc is all about his realization that he has a problem. This development is very nicely handled, with a series of little realizations before the big one at the climax. However, there's a single question that hangs like a dark cloud over the proceedings: Is this something that can be helped? Is he actually capable of forming a monogamous long-term relationship, or is this just the way he is? Alas, this question of free will vs. innate tendencies is one of those eternal questions about the human condition, and writer/director Steve McQueen (no relation) is good enough to know that the question is far more interesting than any answers he may try to provide. As such, this movie ends on an ambiguous cliffhanger that intrigues without frustrating or disappointing.
All of the actors in this movie are absolutely brilliant, and not just because they're amazingly comfortable at getting all kinds of naked for the camera. Michael Fassbender is of course the main attraction, and he delivers a performance that truly stands out, even among a year's worth of stand-out performances by Michael Fassbender. This role demanded an actor who could literally charm the pants off of any young woman without uttering a single word, and damned if Fassbender doesn't make it look easy. More importantly -- as with any character study -- most of the film's conflict is internal, which means that being able to peer into his mind at any given time is a necessity. Again, our lead actor does this brilliantly.
Next up is Carey Mulligan in the role of Brandon's sister, conveniently named Sissy. She's a bar singer freshly moved back from L.A. and recovering from a fresh heartache. See, unlike her emotionally isolated big brother, Sissy wears a heavily battered heart on her sleeve. She falls in love far too easily and it's left her as an emotional train wreck. Sissy is dependent on others to such a degree that she can't function to any degree without someone to be with her. This has naturally earned Brandon's scorn (and not entirely without reason, I might add), but Sissy's got his number like no one else. She's trying to help him -- even though she can barely help herself -- and this is a huge part of what makes the Brandon/Sissy interplay so staggering to watch.
Oh, and lest I forget, Sissy is introduced by way of the longest and most revealing nude scene in Carey Mulligan's career to date. This role was very far out of Mulligan's established comfort zone, and I applaud just how fiercely she dove into it.
The third major character is Brendan's boss, David, played by James Badge Dale. He's an idiot. The guy has a family, and yet he's still eager to throw himself at whatever gorgeous woman will sit still long enough (to be fair, it's never clear if he's married, divorced, separated, or whatever else). What's more, the guy has to latch himself onto Brandon because though the ladies love our protagonist, watching David try to score a woman's phone number is just pathetic.
So David and Sissy naturally hook up, and Brendan's reaction is priceless. On one level, it's his sister making out with his boss right in front of him, just before they go have sex in his bed. On another level, this is a case of two emotionally needy fuckups taking advantage of each other. Just the principle of it is enough to disgust the guy, even without the certain knowledge that there's no way this is going to end well for anyone.
Now, I know what you're probably thinking. After all this talk about emotionally damaged individuals, it might sound like there isn't a normal or relateable character in the bunch. Worry not, for this film provides us with actress Nicole Beharie, who admirably holds her own against Fassbender as another of Brendan's coworkers. Marianne is recently separated, but eager to get back into the dating game. She definitely has a sex drive, but she's looking for a relationship as opposed to a one-night stand. Basically put, Marianne is really the only character in this film who has her head screwed on right, which makes her scenes with Brandon very telling about the latter.
Still, where this cast really shines is in the extended takes. Huge stretches of this film are scenes that just keep going and going and going. There's the scene of Brendan jogging, for example, which offers a beautiful man-on-the-street view of New York City while somehow keeping the camera invisible from all the shiny surfaces that pass by. There's also a scene on an elevator, which is one of many, many scenes when the actors involved need to stay in character and keep the scene moving without any breaks or distractions. There's also Carey Mulligan's performance of "New York, New York," which was done almost entirely in close-up and with very few cuts away. Yes, Mulligan had to sing the entire song from start to finish with the camera zoomed right on her face. No way that could've been easy.
But easily my favorite long take was the Brandon/Marianne sex scene. That had to be the longest and steamiest sex scene I've ever sat through, precisely because it was presented in a single take without any interruptions or distractions. No cuts, no score, no dialogue, and no fancy camera tricks, just these two characters undressing each other and lovemaking. Even porn films don't come close to that level of intimacy and authenticity.
However, the long takes do come at a cost: The pacing is terrible. There are so many shots in this film -- even the very first one! -- that drag on without any point or purpose and contribute nothing to the proceedings. The film only lasts 100 minutes, but I seriously felt like I had been in the theater for two and a half hours at least.
At this point, it should be the most obvious statement in all of my blog entries to date that Shame is not for everyone. If you can't be entertained without some kind of stimulation every five minutes, Shame isn't for you. If you can't stand copious nudity, Shame isn't for you. If you're the kind of person who would only see an NC-17 movie because of the copious nudity, Shame isn't for you, either.
Shame isn't just a sexual film, it's an intimate film. These characters are so lovingly crafted and brought to such vivid life (major kudos to Fassbender and Mulligan) that getting to know them is a thrill. The movie's predilection for long and beautifully staged continuous shots also helps, since it makes the film that much more immersive. Most importantly, this is a highly intellectual film that psychoanalyzes the libido of its main character with more depth and detail than I could possibly cover here.
If that sounds like a film for you, then seek Shame out any way you can.