Shame

Sucks being a sex addict
★★★
☆
Released: 
2011
Director: 
Steve McQueen
Starring: 
Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale, Nicole Beharie
The Setup: 
Examination of how it sucks to be a sex addict.
Discussion: 

Oh dear, hopes were high for this movie. It's by visual artist turned filmmaker Steve McQueen, who had a strong debut with the well-regarded Hunger, also starring Michael Fassbender. And it promises to be a down and dirty look into the mechanics of sex addiction, set against the eternal playground of Manhattan, where enough money can make anything happen. And it stars Fassbender, who never lets one down. But sadly it turns out to be one of those things where in the second half, you start to realize that all of the promising material of the first half simply isn't going to develop into anything.

We open with a gorgeous shot of Fassbender as Brandon lying across his bed, looking disaffected. We then enter a nice prologue with a repeating motif of drawn shades, Brandon ignoring messages from his sister, him wandering naked around his sterile high-end apartment (where we discover another big reason to like Michael Fassbender), and again, being disaffected. He cruises a woman on the subway, and chases after her, but she vanishes. Then he's at work, and we hear someone telling him "I find you disgusting," but it only turns out to be his boss describing others' perceptions of their profession, which is some sterile businessy thing. Michael's computer has been taken, with the threat that IT will find a bunch of porn on his hard drive. He runs and jerks off in the men's room when feeling anxiety.

That night his loudmouth loser boss comes on to a woman at a bar, and Brandon picks her up right from under his nose, then screws her in an underpass. When he arrives home, his sister, Sissy, played by Carey Mulligan, is there. That's why she was calling so much. It's obvious that she's an emotional loose cannon, and surprise, she's a singer. Brandon takes his boss to see her perform, where she sings an excruciating and interminable version of "New York, New York," while you sit there in the audience saying NO WAY would someone that untalented be playing in this high-end nightclub. This sequence also embodies the film cliche of the concert that consists of only one song. Soon Sissy is falling for Brandon's boss' cheesy lines, they're making out in the cab with Brandon right there, and then screwing in his bed while he has to wait in the living room. When it's over and Brandon tries to sleep, Sissy comes and gets in bed with him, ignoring his requests for her to leave, until he finally barks at her in fury. Boundaries: they don't got 'em.

SPOILERS > > >
His hard drive is returned, and was discovered to be clogged with porn. "Do you think it was your intern?" his boss asks, and end of story. A woman at work shows interest in Brandon out of the blue, and they have a painfully awkward date in which we learn that Brandon's longest relationship was only a few weeks long. This sequence bears a subtitle that says "Brandon doesn't know how to negotiate intimacy." In here you notice that the movie is using extremely long takes, something you have time to notice because there is so little going on. Contrast to the long, slow movement of Drive, which managed to remain fascinating and filled with vital energy despite its slow pacing. Brandon goes home and his sister walks in on him jerking off in the bathroom. He comes out and they wrestle semi-erotically. Then she opens his laptop to find an open webcam with a woman who knows Brandon by name. Then Brandon wraps up all his porn and even his laptop and throws it in the trash. Hey man, I'll take that laptop, if you're just gonna toss it.

The next day Brandon and the woman from the failed date skip out of work to have a tryst at an expensive hotel. Brandon can just come and go at work as he pleases, apparently, despite someone making quips about his being a slacker if he's ten minutes late in the morning. The woman can also just drop her job as she likes. But the tryst is a failure because it involves intimacy, not depersonalized fucking, and Brandon sends her away, then spends the rest of the day feeling disaffected in the expensive hotel room. Now I hope you're ready for the shocking conclusion--are you? If not, please take some time to prepare yourself emotionally, unless you've seen movies like this before, in which case nothing you see here will have much impact.

Brandon has a harsh conversation with Sissy in which she says "I'm human! I make mistakes!" and he says "Some people are always making mistakes." She says if they didn't have each other, they'd have no family, and doesn't he find that sad? His silence provides the answer. He goes out for a long night of increasingly-desperate trolling, which includes being beaten up, having a three-way with special emphasis on his pained face as he desperately pumps, and finally descending into gay sex. Yes--EVEN gay sex! THAT'S how shockingly low he is prepared to go! He goes into some straight person's fantasy of a gay sex club that simply does not exist in reality, and is exclusively populated with ultra-hot bears.

When he goes home, Sissy has tried to kill herself! I wonder if McQueen intends one part of his audience to be saying "God, at last!" and, when it turns out she survives, to say "Ugh, gear up for more of the same." Brandon runs his fingers over the scars of her numerous past suicide attempts. Then he goes out to the pier along the river that is closed to the public in reality and breaks down in the rain! Is THIS what it has come to? WHAT has become of him? Then he's back on the subway train, seeing the same woman from before, and you say to yourself "I'll bet the movie is going to just end with the hanging question of whether he makes a move or not," and well, what do ya know? Now we'll all just have to wonder, never knowing with absolute certainty, every single day for the rest of our lives.
< < < SPOILERS END

So one common motif of certain films is those that lay out a bunch of interesting material in the first half, then follow with a second half in which the slow-dawning realization comes over one that none of this is going to develop into anything. It sucks to be a sex addict. Did you know that? Well now you do, and I've saved you $13 and two hours. I would have been interested to learn what happened to Brandon that he turned out this way, but the movie is notably tight-lipped on his past. We just have his sister to let us know that emotional issues run in the family. I would have been fascinated to learn of all the mechanics of how Brandon manages his job and schedule and money in order to continue his addiction, but the movie studiously turns away from all that. He can simply come and go as he pleases, vanishing for long periods, with no repercussions whatsoever. His work computer is clogged with porn--no problem! It could also be interesting if the idea was that the lack of rigor at his job unknowingly allows him to continue his addiction, and maybe that's what the movie is trying to say, it's just that none of it is developed enough, and it ends up not saying anything.

Afterward my friends and I had to conclude, with a little condescension, that this is a movie for straight people. Meaning its just a little naive and ultimately moralistic, meant for people who will be titillated by the thought of a little porn, or certainly the SHOCKING intimations that a man might be BROUGHT LOW enough to consider a blow-job from another guy. And are prepared to believe that a gay sex club such as the one portrayed he exists in present-day New York. Afterward I thought, seriously, that it might indeed be more effective for straights, as they are accustomed to seeing sex on screen as titillating, and this movie could be effective in showing it as done past the point of excitement, but reviews by straight critics tell me that even they find it a little lacking. It's well made, has good performances and nice cinematography, but is there any real reason to see it? Not really.

Should you watch it: 

I think you could safely skip it. It will also hold up just fine on video.