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By Philip Martin

This article was published January 20, 2012 at 2:18 a.m.


Sissy (Carey Mulligan) invades her brother’s carefully ordered yuppie lifestyle in Steve McQueen’s bleak, NC-17-rated drama Shame.

— I am tempted to cop out on this review, to default to the kind of silly snark that passes for arts commentary. I could simply refuse to engage the movie, and if I had any sense, that’s probably exactly what I would do.

But there is something true in Shame, and even though it’s difficult to see how any sentient being could actually enjoy the film, it deserves to be taken seriously. Even if you find the movie boring,or even life force-sapping, it ought to be accorded a full measure of respect. Shame is the antithesis of The Artist - there’s little here that’s entertaining, and I can’t imagine myself watching it again - but it’s undeniably the product of an intriguing intelligence, and the performances by Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan are indisputably courageous.

About the best synopsis I can come up with for Shame is that it’s about as joyless a depiction of the life of a superficially enviable character as I have ever seen. Fassbender’s character, Brandon, is the sort of carelessly debonair man who populates black and-white advertisements for men’s fragrances and the pages of Esquire. He has enough money, a very cool (but not over-the-top) Manhattan apartment and fashion tastes that run to understated slates and grays. And he is the least interesting man in the world.

McQueen knows this from the start, although the audience can be forgiven for at least momentarily investing in Brandon as he slyly flirts with an anonymous married woman on the subway (another point in its favor: Brandon unabashedly uses public transportation). When they fail to connect - either he’s too slow or she’s not that willing after all - we feel a little pang of disappointment. (Shoot, she might have been the one.)

Yet by the time his emotional black hole of a sister Sissy (Mulligan, usually pantsless) shows up to cramp his style, we’ve already realized that Brandon is one hollow satyr, a man reduced to a single dour drive. As Muddy Waters would say, he can’t be satisfied.

And neither can Sissy - the name, like the movie, is somewhat irritatingly minimalist, but never mind, it’s just a name - who alludes to a mysterious bad upbringing across the river in Jersey that presumably damaged the kids. (Nothing, other than bodies, is presented explicitly in Shame, though we somehow find out they’re Irish and she used to cut herself.)

Sissy gets her moment by singing an excruciating, drawn-out version of “New York, New York” in a swank bar, a rendition that brings a tear to her brother’s eye (but I thought was purposefully awful, sort of like Jennifer Jason Leigh’s lacerating, 8 1/2-minute version of Van Morrison’s “Take Me Back” in the 1995movie Georgia).

As an evocation of cheerless ennui, Shame is unmatched. It’s a chilly depiction of a sad, wounded monster who might plausibly walk among us. What a real-life Patrick Bateman might look like.

Shame 88 Cast: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale, Nicole Beharie, Hannah Ware, Amy Gargreaves, Elizabeth Masucci, Lucy Walters Director: Steve McQueen Rating: NC-17 Running time: 117 minutes

MovieStyle, Pages 33 on 01/20/2012

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