The United States was settled as a puritan nation and despite the fact that those origins were over 200 years ago, many of the values still hold steady in our society. One of the places where this is most notable is in the film industry. Every year there is controversy surrounding the amount of violence and sexuality in cinema and the way in which it is rated by the MPAA, the latter typically more harshly than the former. As a result, major studios tend to avoid material with more explicit sexual material, instead leaving those films to the independent world. If that system can regularly produce titles like Steve McQueen’s Shame, however, there’s no issue supporting the status quo.

Brandon (Michael Fassbender) is a middle-aged man living in New York with a serious sex addiction. While outwardly he appears normal, his apartment is littered with pornography, he hires prostitutes, and he masturbates at every opportunity. But when his sister (Carey Mulligan) arrives unannounced and tells him that she will be staying with him for an undisclosed amount of time, his entire carefully-constructed world begins to fall apart.

Walking away from the film, all you can think is, “Why has it taken this long to discover the true talents of Michael Fassbender?” who puts on a performance nothing short of breathtaking. Unlike the films that have brought him to stardom in recent years, like Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds or Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class, Shame is truly Fassbender’s show and he makes the best of every minute. Tiptoeing on a high wire between restraint and pure rage, Fassbender’s Brandon is a man doing constant battle with his own id and what the actor does with it is nothing short of phenomenal. The tension between him and Mulligan (who is quite superb in her own right) is disturbingly palpable, as the mind is left to only imagine the origins of their fractured relationship. Because of the nature of the film as a character piece, left in the hands of a lesser performer it would have suffered as a whole. Fortunately McQueen had Michael Fassbender.

Aesthetically, Shame is stunning, in large part because of McQueen’s exceptional job capturing New York City. Playing perfectly into the movie’s themes of isolation and alienation, Brandon is often seen alone and surrounded by tall buildings, shots that succeed in accentuating the character’s loneliness. Contrasting those scenes are ones of extreme intimacy, which the director never shies away from. McQueen most definitely earns its NC-17 rating, but it’s never gratuitous or even erotic. The filmmaker understands that in order to understand Brandon and his weaknesses the audience must witness them, and in that sense Shame is unflinching.

I can’t help but fear that because of the film’s overt treatment of sexuality it will be ignored come awards season, simply because it deserves recognition. Michael Fassbender puts on one of the greatest, if not the greatest, performances you will see all year and McQueen’s director is magnificent. Bluntly, Shame is as courageous as filmmaking gets.

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