Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender) is a man who seemingly has it all: great looks, professional success, and a way with women. However, he's driven by a sexual compulsion that is pathological, insatiable, and barely hidden behind an orderly facade. When Brandon's sister (Carey Mulligan) invades his home life, how long will it take before his life completely unravels? That's the story of Shame.
In 2008, Steve McQueen directed Hunger, a film about the 1981 prison hunger strike led by Bobby Sands (also played by Fassbender). The final minutes of that movie showed Sands physically broken down, inert, even as he remained spiritually committed to the protest that ended his life. It's interesting, then, that McQueen chooses to start Shame with an image that could've come from his earlier film: Fassbender, motionless in bed, yet this time the picture of physical perfection with a clearly damaged soul. It's a carefully constructed image that encapsulates this story of destructive sexual addiction.
There are many such moments like this in Shame. We see Brandon partying in New York restaurants, holding the gazes of beautiful women, being celebrated for his strong work. And yet he never truly looks happy; in social situations, his are the eyes of a predator, fixated on the hunt as some basic means to an end. And in almost every private moment, he puts his hands on pornography or on himself- during his frequent masturbatory experiences, his expression is one of anguish and bitter drive. His sister, Sissy, is a marked contrast- exuberant, boisterous, passionate. Yet she's afflicted with the same inability to truly connect with other people. There's not precisely a plot to Shame, but its episodic nature demonstrates how damaged Brandon and Sissy are by their lack of capacity to meaningfully create relationships.
During its theatrical run, Shame caused a minor sensation by embracing a well-earned NC-17 rating. The film is, indeed, sexually explicit, but in ways that are artful and profound. One particularly masterful scene, involving Brandon and a co-worker (Nicole Beharie), elegantly shows a great deal about both characters without saying a word. In fact, the film is often a veritable class in visual storytelling, be it in moments of sexual energy or seemingly innocuous subway conversations. Occasionally, Shame threatens to veer into melodrama or afterschool special heavyhandedness, but an absolutely stunning performance by Fassbender keeps the film sober and compelling without sermonizing. Director McQueen elides conventional narrative and easy answers, and thus oversees a character study that is lurid, specific, and as addicting as its subject matter.
Shame is presented in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio; you'll see bars on the top and bottom of your widescreen TV. While the film uses a mostly muted, joyless color scheme, there's a heavy emphasis on long takes- and the cinematography is definitely up to the challenge. This is a beautiful film; the pools of light shimmer in the transfer, and the shadows and dark spaces are Marianas Trench-deep. The subject matter of Shame is often ugly, but the image quality is pristine.
The main audio for this Blu-ray release is 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, and for the most part, it's an immersive mix that combines the sounds of the city, dialogue, and music in a very ear-pleasing way. Having said that, there were at least two instances where the soundtrack noticeably drops out. Whether or not this is an error in the Blu-ray or the original soundtrack is unclear, but these are notable distractions from what is a mostly excellent audio track.
The special features for the Blu-ray release of Shame are as follows:
Five brief featurettes: Focus on Michael Fassbender, Director Steve McQueen, The Story of Shame, A Shared Vision, and Fox Movie Channel Presents: In Character with Michael Fassbender. While each of these are nicely produced, they're mostly redundant and not particularly insightful. If you need the themes of the movie explained, then you may find them useful.
The trailer for the film.
A DVD copy of the film.
A digital copy of the film.