The best drama in years
[This review was originally posted as part of our New York Film Festival Coverage. It is being reposted to coincide with the film's national release.]
In a parallel 2011 where Drive does not exist, I can unequivocally state that Shame is the best movie of the year so far. In actual 2011, that's not such an easy thing to say. They're both incredible movies about characters played by incredibly good actors who have some connection to Carey Mulligan... but this isn't about Drive. It's about Shame, and Shame is the best straight drama I have seen in a long time and a movie that everybody needs to see.
Also, Michael Fassbender has a huge penis.
Shame tells the story of Brandon (Michael Fassbender), a man living in New York City who is addicted to sex. He watches porn constantly, masturbates everywhere, and has sex with everybody he can. Sissy (Carey Mulligan), his sister, shows up at his apartment one day unannounced and convinces him to let her stay there. To say anymore would be to spoil the film, so I will leave it at that.
The production is absolutely top notch. New York City is a beautiful place, and it makes for an excellent backdrop. The cinematography is simply gorgeous, and this is the film that proves that long takes can be used for good. Although there's nothing quite as extensive as the 17 minute take from Steve McQueen's last film Hunger, they are always perfectly utilized, framed, and filmed. The short takes are no less powerful, with every moment of every shot seeming completely necessary to tell the proper story. The editing is minimalist in the best way possible, never once calling attention to itself. Everything focuses on the environment and the actors.
Which is good, because the acting is incredible. Michael Fassbender plays his character with unmatched conviction, and everything that he does is done as Brandon. As far as anyone should be concerned, the character is played by himself. Carey Mulligan plays her part just as well. She is a much different character than in other films of hers that I've seen, but she is also much more compelling, and the tension between her and Fassbender is palpable throughout the film. No matter what the two of them are doing, whether they are speaking or not, there is a sense of significance in their interactions. This tension more than anything else is what makes the film so powerful. It may be the story of a man with a sex addiction, but it's very much a family drama at heart.
As for the sex... well, it's understandable why the film is rated NC-17. I would guess that at least a third of the characters are at least partially naked onscreen at some point, and while the sex is never pornographic, it is definitely uncomfortable (especially in a crowded theater). The way Brandon reacts to various situations is much more interesting. There is one particularly uncomfortable and incredibly significant scene where things don't go as expected, and it's the characters that make the scene memorable, not the nudity.
The sound design is also excellent, perfectly capturing the moments of the character's lives. The sound and soundtrack really bring everything together. In fact, the film has one of the best uses of sound I have seen (heard?) in a long time. A scene which follows Brandon around his apartment is made immensely uncomfortable (and kind of horrifying) by the sounds coming from a different room. It's one of the many moments in the film that really stuck with me, and it's another excellent example of the film's direction.
This review feels incomplete. Indeed, it's among the shortest reviews I have ever written. I have so much more that I want to say about every topic I covered and more, but I realize that I'm repeating myself. You've read words like "incredibly," "perfectly," "beautifully," and the like far too much already, and the more I write the more those words will appear. What struck me as an issue when I first watched it I realized in retrospect is far more realistic than I initially thought. That's kind of an awkward statement, but to say anymore would go into heavy spoiler territory, and I wouldn't dream of spoiling anything about this film.
It all boils down to this: you must see Shame. Unfortunately, its distribution is being limited immensely by its NC-17 rating. If you are able to see it in theaters, I implore you to do so. If you have to wait a few months to get it on DVD/Blu-ray, do that. It's not something you need to see right today or tomorrow (although do it if you can), but it is something that you need to see eventually. As a dramatic piece, Shame succeeds on every level. It is truly an amazing film. No question that this is among the best films of the year, and among the best films I have seen in a very, very long time.