Michael Fassbender smoking; ‘Shame’ simplistic

  • By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
  • Thursday, December 8, 2011 12:30pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

Have you gotten on the Michael Fassbender bandwagon yet? Now’s the time: This actor has enjoyed an amazing career surge this year.

He smoldered as Mr. Rochester in “Jane Eyre,” then showed off his talents as a charismatic anti-hero in “X-Men: First Class.” In a couple of weeks he’ll tackle the role of Carl Jung in “A Dangerous Method.”

The guy has earned his hot streak; he’s a fearsomely committed actor, intelligent but with a strong physical presence. He needs all that in “Shame,” a project that forces him to take an excruciating spiritual journey.

Fassbender plays Brandon, a New Yorker with a job in a skyscraper and an apartment full of sleek, empty views. This is presumably meant to reflect his inner life, which he keeps at bay with a series of meaningless sexual encounters.

His relentless pursuit of sex is interrupted by the unwelcome arrival of his sister (Carey Mulligan), an aspiring singer recently separated from a boyfriend. Brandon, tidy and discreet, hates his sister’s neediness and sloppy lifestyle, but she’s got nowhere else to stay.

The sister’s arrival will trigger a crisis, because she’s a reminder of — perhaps — the root causes of Brandon’s sexual compulsion. We must say “perhaps,” because the film does not explicitly describe anything that happened in the past, although there are some allusions to childhood awfulness.

Director Steve McQueen (no relation to the actor, except in the sense of being tight-lipped about his meanings) opts for having the explanation of Brandon’s compulsion — if there is anything as simple as a single explanation — left unsaid. It’s almost the movie’s reason for being, this absence at its center.

And yet “Shame” is so insistent on this unspoken source of Brandon’s damage that it becomes oddly obvious, almost simplistic. It’s a much more straightforward movie than the previous collaboration between McQueen and Fassbender, “Hunger,” a lyrical and mysterious look at the Irish hunger strikers of early 1980s.

There are moments when the urban-ennui approach comes to life. During Brandon’s dinner date with a co-worker (Nicole Beharie), for instance, or in a wordless sequence on a subway car as Brandon seduces a stranger (Lucy Walters).

Both Fassbender and Mulligan are exceptionally good. Her role is smaller, but every line reading (including a mournful recital of “New York, New York”) reminds you of how original she is.

Because Fassbender’s playing an uptight enigma, he doesn’t give an expansive performance. But there’s enough in his hungry expressions and sudden hostility to suggest an entire character beneath the slick surface, more, in fact, than the movie itself offers up.

“Shame” (2½ stars)

A successful New Yorker (Michael Fassbender) pursues a life of meaningless sex, until the arrival of his sister (Carey Mulligan) brings on a crisis in his empty life. Although director Steve McQueen aims to be enigmatic about all this, the film, while very well-acted, is oddly simplistic in its implications.

Rated: NC-17 for nudity, language, violence.

Showing: Pacific Place.

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