Shame is full of enough angst, eros and ambiguity to ignite interest and debate among any audience.
Shame is full of enough angst, eros and ambiguity to ignite interest and debate among any audience.
'Shame': looking beyond the NC-17 rating

In the weeks since its Dec. 2 release, Fox Searchlight launched an aggressive awards campaign to talk to the press about the burden of the NC-17 rating on Steve McQueen’s new film, Shame. The Chicago Sun Times reports Fox Searchlight Co-President Stephen Gilula, saying, “We’re releasing it not because of (the rating), but perhaps despite it.” His team brags about the courage it took to release the film speculating that Shame will usher in a new era of commercial viability for the much feared NC-17 rating.

Yet the buzz only distracts us from what is in all actuality an interesting, thoughtful and well-made film.  Shame follows successful New Yorker, Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender), as he tries to hide a sexual addiction from his co-workers, friends and visiting sister (Carey Mulligan).  Despite ample nudity and sexual content in the film, this is not a film about sex, as Fox Searchlight would have us believe. 

McQueen expertly uses Brandon’s sexual life to paint a picture of a complex and often unlikable protagonist, a man with debilitating intimacy issues who struggles with any relationship in which he is not in complete control.  McQueen and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt excel in showing us the world through Brandon’s eyes and engaging us deeply in the character’s inner drama.

We feel his excitement as he makes advances on a woman on the subway. We share his terror over the safety of his sister.  McQueen’s unique pace keeps us with Brandon throughout the film, refusing to cut away from painful or hard-to-watch moments. 

Despite striking visuals, the film occasionally relies on overt visual metaphors. Aided by Bobbitt’s beautiful cinematography, as well as a beautiful score by Harry Escott, the film’s two leads deliver on their performances.

The film is not without its disappointing forays into heteronormative cliché.  Brandon’s rock bottom involves a descent into a hellish gay sex club. The scene is shot in red, a stark contrast to a later scene featuring a heavenly three-way with Brandon and two women in which the characters are surrounded by a warm white light and soft music. 

The out-of-place scene in the gay club only serves to cast judgment on Brandon’s choice of partners.  Are we meant to read the sex Brandon has with a man as somehow more deviant, or more dysfunctional than the sex he has with a string of female prostitutes?

Only time will tell whether Shame will play a role in commercially validating the NC-17 rating. To keep the discussion of the film focused around the rating does the film a great disservice.  Shame is full of enough angst, eros and ambiguity to ignite interest and debate among any audience.  Let the studios and distributors worry about the rating, and enjoy the film as it is--an exploration into some very interesting, albeit adult subject matter. 

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Erica Gleichman's picture

Erica Gleichman writes movie reviews for The Precarious, studied Film Studies at The University of Colorado - Denver and currently lives in San Diego, California.

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