Beneath Shame’s veneer of soulless chic and artful grit, there’s an urgency that’s like an infant’s cry: blunt yet piercing, aware only of its own pain. Director Steve McQueen executes his premise—a sex addict’s headlong dive toward rock bottom—with a bold starkness that forces us to transpose our emotions inside the story.
The greatest compliment I can give McQueen and star Michael Fassbender is that, during the car ride home, I broke my own ban on Christmas music. After watching Fassbender’s Brandon systematically wrench any semblance of tenderness out of his life, I found the overwrought sentimentality of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” palliative.
Shame is, in essence, a short story on the big screen. The forward action is driven by the seething interiority that distinguishes a Mary Gaitskill story: Certainly the characters’ actions (or lack thereof) move the plot along, but the hidden influences propelling them (or holding them back) is what breaks the reader’s heart. Parts of Shame recalled one of my favorite early Gaitskill stories, “An Affair, Edited,” a slice-of-life look at a New York account executive; memories of a college girlfriend whose intensity terrified him keep sifting through his current haze of hot spots and happy hours:
“Joel drank one paper cup of watered-down alcohol after another and stared at the moiling sweat-dampened crowd with an attitude of wistful contempt … He saw a girl standing alone at a bar, dressed like a twelve-year-old’s idea of a hooker … He remembered the blow-up doll he had once hung up in his Ann Arbor apartment as a party decoration. It wore Sara’s clothes and bore … a sign that read ‘Hurt Me Beat Me Fuck Me’ … Joel continued toward the girl at the bar, fighting the anxious crimp in his shoulders.”
This toggle through time contextualizes Joel’s petty cruelty without giving us its exact cause. Shame employs a similar device in its opening sequence: We cut between Brandon eye-fucking a woman on the subway and padding naked around his apartment, regarding the frantic female voice on his message machine with the same detachment as his morning piss; Brandon greeting a comely call girl with the same ardor he reserves for his jerks-at-work. In the span of a few moments, we can see that, despite the symphony of micro-expressions playing across Fassbender’s face as he takes in his fellow passenger, there’s no real joy in conquest, it’s just rubbing his knuckles over an insatiable itch.
Shame elevates “show, don’t tell” from a trite-but-truism into a Zen koan; volumes are written into its silences. As the call girl stands over Brandon’s bed, the camera cuts her head out of the frame and the audience sees her for all that she is to Brandon: a body. When he tells her to undress slowly, he’s only playing lip service to the rituals of seduction. Brandon stares off-screen, toward her face, toward something that simply isn’t there.
Flannery O’ Connor argued that in a good short story, “the details will … accumulate meaning from the story itself, and when this happens, they become symbolic in their action.” In Shame, details become the story. Most of the truly intimate moments—Brandon and his ne’er do well sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) cracking wise as they wait for a morning train, the getting-to-know-you chit-chat between Brandon and the co-worker he tries to date, the fight between Brandon and Sissy that will be brutally familiar to anyone who has (or has been) a fucked-up sibling—are shot from behind. We get close-ups of shoulders and half-turned faces. When we’re denied everything that a shy smile or a sudden blink can tell us, we must read our own meaning into the scenes.
Critics like Slate’s Dana Stevens fault Shame for its obliqueness: “Shame … is … a psychological case study of sorts. But McQueen’s file on his patient is too thin. ‘We’re not bad people, we just come from a bad place,’ Sissy tells her brother urgently in one late scene. What place? (OK, we do learn they’re from New Jersey, but that can only account for so much trauma).” Stevens misses out on the genuine pleasure of watching this film, which, like the genuine pleasure of reading any good piece of fiction, is playing hopscotch through context clues.
Clipping in at 101 minutes, Shame simply can’t cover that file’s worth of material. It shares O’Connor’s preoccupation with “human action … as it is illuminated and outlined by mystery.” The mystery giving Shame its piston-pump of a heartbeat is the origin of Brandon’s addiction, an origin that is teased out in his interactions with Sissy. When we first see Sissy, she is (literally) his mirror twin; she steps naked from the shower, her body pale and damp and vulnerable. The camera holds her reflection in the mirror throughout their entire conversation (he never offers her a towel); this image of a woman bared against glass is repeated when Brandon fucks a blond call girl against a windowpane.
When shows like Boardwalk Empire and Dexter exploit the incest taboo directly, it becomes too grotesque to retain its power. The erotic undertones between Brandon and Sissy keep their dark potency because everything is implied. When Sissy catches Brandon masturbating in the bathroom, he charges out wearing only his towel, which slips down as he straddles her on the couch, screaming into her face.
Sissy is more passive-aggressive. She’s another poor man’s Marilyn, drifting from man to man and gig to gig. After her bittersweet rendering of “New York, New York” stirs her brother to tears, she sleeps with his dude-bro boss in his own bed. When Brandon is trying to sleep, Sissy slips under the comforter and spoons him, cooing that she’s cold. He snarls at her with a fury that made me jump in my seat.
We don’t know if Brandon is simply embarrassed that his sister spread her legs for his (married) employer, or if there is something sickeningly familiar in that moment, something that conjures the sounds of a doorknob turning and an unwelcome weight settling on his bed. We don’t know if he and Sissy have ever crossed that line, or if, in that “bad place” they come from, the lines were never drawn to begin with.
The answers wouldn’t illuminate the mystery; they’d blot it out under an antiseptic hospital light. All that is so richly, viscerally human about the film would be reduced to pathology. Even a scene that telegraphs its intent, like Brandon trailing his fingers over the scars along Sissy’s arm, remains deeply personal. While watching Shame, anyone like me, who has (and has been) a fucked-up sibling, will feel years of blanket forts and snow angels, spat words and fumbling reconciliation churning to the surface. This is the power of good fiction: It lets us breathe meaning into blank spaces.