Michael Fassbender gained our attention with his performance as Magneto in this summer’s blockbuster X-men: First Class, but it is his most recent performance in Steve McQueen’s Shame that shows his true depth and vulnerability as an actor. His performance as Brandon, a sex addict, is raw. Fassbender, literally and figuratively, bares it all. We watch a man break on screen, and look to those around him, his fellow humans, for support to become whole. To say Shame would not be the film it is without his performance is certainly true, but as with all great things — and yes, I am calling this film great – the sum is greater than its individual parts.
McQueen’s direction and screenplay are almost flawless. I say almost, not because of any glaring flaws in the film, but because, as his film points out, we are all simply human and with that condition comes an element of error. McQueen has a knack for knowing how to convey emotion to the audience through the camera. I talked about Fassbender baring it all, and in the first fifteen minutes we see enough of Fassbender to make me blush every time I hear his name. I am sure there are those who will criticize these opening moments, but let’s look at how they serve a purpose. McQueen sets his audience up, partially shocking them into Brandon’s world, but more importantly introducing them to his world through a very candid “day in the life,” if you will. And to address the issue of sex addition without nudity would be like trying to portray a drug addict without drugs.
The second element that McQueen seems to have a clearer understanding of than most of us is relationship. In comes Sissy (Carey Mulligan), Brandon’s sister, also clearly dealing with some issues. The interaction that these two have on screen in the first few minutes is filled with more reality than what you find in the entirety of most films. And in a scene of Sissy singing “New York, New York,” the camera holds on these two sibling’s facial expressions, conveying more than a scene with dialogue ever could.
It’s these subtleties that McQueen has mastered in both this and his earlier Hunger: a slight change in camera, a gentle pause on a character’s face, a scene that is extended just long enough to purposefully make you feel a bit uncomfortable. It is these nuances that set McQueen’s films apart. McQueen’s films become more than simple entertainment, truly works of art.
His films are meant to affect, and affect they do. One cannot help but walk out of a McQueen film questioning, asking, discussing and reasoning. Why make a film about sex addiction? As McQueen himself explained, this is not a film simply about sex addition, or even just about addiction for that matter, but it is a film about the human condition, and it is this human condition that McQueen is able to portray so beautifully.