When 2012 comes around and it’s time to announce the Oscar for Best Actor, Michael Fassbender, 34, will probably be sitting in the audience at the Hollywood Bowl with a nomination for one of his performances in Shame, Jane Eyre and A Dangerous Method, and he will almost certainly not win.
But he should win. The adjudicators of the Venice Film Festival had the sense to recognize the scope of his talent earlier this year when they awarded him the prestigious Best Actor award for his unsettling performance in Shame, the controversial new film by director Steve McQueen.
Set in New York, Shame, which opens on Friday, introduces us to Brandon Sullivan (Fassbender) a young Irishman who emigrated with his parents to the U.S. when he was a teenager. Brandon is now a successful businessman in the city, but he has a dark side -- he’s completely addicted to no-strings sex and hardcore pornography, to the point that it threatens to take over his life.
It’s a far from sympathetic role at face value, but Fassbender is one of those once in a generation actors who can find the humanity in even the most difficult characters.
In his hands we see that Brandon’s deepest problem is his inability to achieve intimacy with anyone in his life. That makes for a profoundly lonely existence.
As his free spirited sister Sissie, gifted British actress Carey Mulligan gives us a hint that the brother and sister’s family life growing up in Ireland and then New Jersey was far from perfect.
“We came from a bad place but we’re not bad people,” she confesses at one point, leaving the audience and Fassbender’s unforgettably haunted face to fill in the details.
It’s the second time Fassbender, raised in Killarney, Co. Kerry, has worked with director McQueen (previously he starred as Irish hunger striker Bobby Sands in McQueen’s extraordinary debut film Hunger). The partnership between the two has grown so strong now that Fassbender has said he would sign on for any future project with the director any time, anywhere, script unseen.
There’s a good reason for this unqualified adulation -- McQueen’s 2008 debut feature changed Fassbender’s life, catapulting the then unknown Irish actor into the big leagues. Hailed at the time as a masterpiece, it was Fassbender’s performance as Bobby Sands that carried the film. McQueen won the Camera dOr award for first time filmmakers at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival.
Now as Brandon Sullivan, Fassbender takes his career to much edgier places than he has ever dared to before. For a start there’s his full frontal nudity, which earned the film a dreaded NC-17 rating.
Fassbender’s courage is remarkable, because time and again director McQueen places him in the most vulnerable situations, in scenes that most other male actors would probably have balked at. It’s a measure of the trust that must have grown between the two men that the film explores its dark subject matter as candidly as it does.
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Sullivan’s problem is that he objectifies women sexually, but cannot or will not connect with them emotionally. He has sex with multiple partners indoors and outdoors all over Manhattan, but he risks nothing of himself.
When a beautiful young woman comes along and begins to finally shatter the wall he has built between himself and the world, Sullivan at first embraces his salvation and then immediately rejects it, before he has even had the time to understand what he’s doing.
McQueen’s new film makes it clear that there is a world of difference between having sex and making love, and that the tension between satisfying the two often conflicting appetites can turn a man (or a woman’s) life completely upside down.
Shame is very adult material in other words, because it grapples with issues that confront almost every grown up and it does so in a way that doesn’t trivialize them or insult your intelligence.
McQueen pulls no punches. In satisfying his most basic instincts, we begin to realize that they in fact trap Sullivan.
Sex scenes become more and more frantic and desperate, until the final one takes on the aspect of a horror film.
Rather than give too much away here, suffice to say that the threesome near the end of the film strikes you as desperately sad and even horrific rather than erotic or freeing. Fassbender’s face is a mask of desperation and loss, made all the more tragic by his refusal to understand his own predicament.
Sullivan is self-destructive and lost, wallowing in shame and remorse for his selfish actions and then attempting to outrun them, without succeeding.
What makes the film so unsettling is how completely Sullivan allows himself to be consumed by his own sexual gratification. Satisfying his lust has become the preeminent impulse in his life, but he has managed to keep this fact hidden from most of those around him.
What he says is one thing, but what he does is something else. It’s that age-old Jekyll and Hyde contradiction between his private and the public faces, but most of the time Sullivan doesn’t even seem to be aware of or concerned by where his appetites are leading him. The audience knows that only disaster awaits him, though.
Men seeking out sex as a way to cope with their own unruly feelings or anxieties is nothing new, but few films ever dare to address the compulsions that drive them with the maturity that Shame does.
Interestingly, the film doesn’t suggest that lust is always a deceitful and dangerous force in people’s lives. Instead, it’s Sullivan’s refusal to ever allow himself to connect to the people he’s having sex with that makes him so damaged, the film says.
Much will probably be made about all the nudity and the multiple partners, but honestly, Shame is not in the least bit racy or pornographic. At all times Fassbender’s performance and lighthouse intelligence remind you of what the film is exploring and what it will personally cost his character.
Critics have compared Fassbender to the young Daniel Day Lewis, as an actor of the first rate. But really he’s actually closer to Marlon Brando, a once in a generation male lead who has looks, sensitivity, skill and the ability to convey a great deal with a simple gesture.
The French call an orgasm “le petit mort,” meaning the little death (that laughs in the face of the big one, presumably). Rarely has a film dared to suggest this nakedly that pursuing one can lead to a different kind of death -- that of your own spirit and heart.
Sullivan’s addiction and drug of choice is sex, but it could just as easily be drugs or alcohol. The audience realizes he’s seeking oblivion, not answers.
In his portrait of a man who keeps missing the crucial moments in his own life that contain the grace to save him, Fassbender stars in the film of the year.
Below, watch the trailer for 'Shame':