Are we ready yet to be grown up at the movies? Even in a film year as scattershot as 2011, it's a stretch to call two films a trend, but along with feel-bad movie of Christmas, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, the Michael Fassbender vehicle Shame seems designed to challenge Hollywood's last taboo: mature subject matter.
Shame is already infamous for being the first film since 2007 to shoulder the dreaded NC-17 rating, and Lust, Caution's Tony Leung didn't hit thousands of screens as a young Magneto earlier that summer. It's embarrassing how novel it is that a movie star should choose to make a film specifically for adults.
Of course, the words "adult" and "film" in close quarters bring to mind a certain sort of movie, and an outline of Shame won't do much to shake it: Fassbender plays Brandon, a successful New Yorker with a great office job, a fashionably bare high-rise apartment, and a debilitating sex addiction. Thankfully, director/co-writer Steve McQueen (who directed Fassbender in the 2008 IRA drama Hunger, and who for clarification's sake is not the long-dead American actor/badass) doesn't get too precious plotting out the sort of indie drama that might render Brandon's affliction a functional quirk.
The film is more or less a straightforward addiction narrative, drawing on the same paranoia and disarray that fuel any number of stories of spiraling alcoholism or drug abuse. But it's different and thoughtful, in that Brandon's addiction demands so much more from the audience. Booze and pills are external forces, after all, introduced at some crucial point to the system, and those who enjoy them and those who don't can all generally understand the implications of abuse. But sexual impulse is organic to the human experience; in Brandon's case it has simply gone haywire. Any well-adjusted adult can connect with mundane details of it, and so to see the precipitous sum of these desires is troubling.
On the surface Brandon seems normal, even charming. Out for drinks with coworkers, he quietly seduces a young woman out from under his boorish boss; on the subway he nearly seals the deal just by locking eyes. Though Fassbender brings these moments a dashing allure, we come to understand it as a means to an end, no different than dialing up a call girl or slipping off to the executive washroom for some mid-morning relief. (Brandon's distress at the sight of an IT guy walking off with his office computer is one of Shame's few laughs.) He's dismissive of monogamy, wondering why someone would limit himself to just one partner, but it runs deeper than he'll say. For Brandon, sex and emotional intimacy have been severed to the extent that they're at odds, and there's only room for one.
Things get complicated, then, when his troubled sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), shows up without warning. McQueen (with co-writer Abi Morgan) is coy about the pair's relationship in a way that's beguiling at first, but grows frustrating. Sissy plays a necessary role in upending Brandon's enabling solitude, but Shame's artsy momentum is disrupted as she draws the audience's investment away, while the attendant story developments never break away from, much less upset, our expectations.
The result is an ending that teeters dangerously on the edge of moralism, a poor cap to a film that's most adult for its nonjudgment of empty sex. The idea of shame itself hangs over Shame, but it's most successful when we're left to apply it ourselves, feeling the psychological weight from within Brandon's own head. Shame makes this possible to a greater extent than most of us may be comfortable admitting, but—with Sissy pulling us aside emotionally and narratively—perhaps less than the filmmakers would hope.
Still, Steve McQueen is an obvious talent—Fassbender has rarely been as impressive as when he's let loose on extended, single-shot dramatic scenes—and with Shame has given the NC-17 rating a confident step toward the legitimacy it deserves. Graphic nudity and sexuality abound, and McQueen sets no rules against eroticism, but his real demand is that we not only look at sex but also look past it. In the most real sense, this is a film for mature audiences only.