(2011) Drama (Fox Searchlight) Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale, Nicole Beharie, Mari-Ange Ramirez, Lucy Walters, Alex Manette, Hannah Ware, Elizabeth Masucci, Rachel Farrar, Loren Omer, Anna Rose Hopkins. Directed by Steve McQueen
Sex is one of those things that we Americans have a love-hate relationship with. On the one hand, we have a pornography industry that rakes in billions of dollars annually. On the other, we have a puritanical outlook that relegates sex to the shadows, a shameful thing that is supposed to only take place between husband and wife and then only for procreational purposes, not for enjoyment or pleasure. It’s that ridiculous dichotomy that movies like Shame exploit, this one more eloquently than others.
Brandon (Fassbender) is an affable Irishman who grew up in New Jersey; he is a successful salesman for a high tech firm, living in a posh Chelsea apartment (albeit sparsely furnished) and on the outside, a nice decent sort of fellow.
But when you look at the hard drive of his computer (as happens when his IT group discovers a virus on it) you’ll see enough porn to make Ron Jeremy blush. And thus it is when you look more closely at Brandon. He has a sexual compulsion; he beds as many women as he can, relying on escorts and hookers when there are none available and masturbating constantly when he can’t get a woman – or a man – to hook up with. Sex is constantly on his mind. Commitment, however, is not – he’s never had a romantic relationship that’s lasted longer than a few months.
His sister Sissy (Mulligan) is much the same way but in a needier vein. Whereas Brandon prefers anonymous sex, Sissy wants someone to hold her – anybody and she uses sex as a means to get it. She wants so desperately to be loved that she tries to climb into Brandon’s bed one night. Alone and needy, she stays at her brother’s place for a few days and turns his life upside down. His normal routine is destroyed.
Brandon is getting sweet on one of the gals at his office, the recently separated Marianne (Beharie). However his world is beginning to cave in, as is Sissy’s as the shame of their compulsion begins to prey upon them.
Fassbender and McQueen previously teamed up on Hunger, the movie about IRA activist Bobby Sands who starved himself to death in a British-run prison in 1971. While that movie was about the fall out of fanaticism, this movie is more about baser compulsion. Brandon can’t help himself; he uses sex as a means to feel better about himself.
Both Fassbender and Mulligan turn in terrific performances. Brandon is carrying a load of self-loathing around with him that gives lie to the self-confident veneer he projects to the world. As he sees what he is becoming he deliberately tries to destroy himself. It’s a marvelous performance that is mirrored by Mulligan’s, whose Sissy is undergoing much the same process albeit taking a different route than he does. Sissy is a singer and in one sequence, sings the Frank Sinatra/Liza Minelli standard “New York, New York” so slowly it becomes a dirge rather than a celebration of the Big Apple; instead it becomes an ironic comment on how the dream of making it in New York is a pipe dream at best. It’s an excruciating scene that goes on way too long on purpose; at the time I couldn’t wait for it to end but upon reflection it is a bit of brilliant direction.
There is a rage in Brandon (much of it directed at his sister) that sometimes shows through his carefully created mask and hints at a dark past filled with plenty of skeletons; exactly what they are is never explicitly spelled out but in a way that’s for the best; one is left to wonder what kind of demons drive the two of them and where they came from; an abusive childhood perhaps, or a single traumatic incident?
This is not for everybody. The sex is played out graphically and without flinching; this is perhaps the un-sexiest movie about sex you are ever likely to see. Yes, Brandon is having sex with these women but while his body is being pleasured he never truly enjoys it. That is the nature of compulsions, taking the joy out of things that should be joyful.
Nor is this an indictment of hedonism or the pursuit of sex. It’s merely a portrait of what happens when something good is taken to extremes. This is a movie that will make you squirm (and not always in a good way) and re-examine your values about sex. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
REASONS TO GO: A searing portrait of sexual obsession and of people who seem normal on the surface but are deeply broken. Mulligan and Fassbender are scintillating.
REASONS TO STAY: Those who are easily offended by sex and sexuality will find this abominable.
FAMILY VALUES: There are a lot of graphic sex scenes and plenty of nudity as well as a crapload of foul language; this is in no way, shape or form suitable for the kids.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The sequence in which Brandon and David watch Lucy sing at the restaurant was shot in real time; the actors hadn’t heard Carey Mulligan sing so their reactions were genuine.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/26/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100. The reviews are uniformly positive.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Sex, Lies and Videotape.
FULL FRONTAL LOVERS: Fassbender and nearly every actress in the movie (with the exception of Mulligan) gets naked here and trust me, nothing is left to the imagination.
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
TOMORROW: The Duchess