On Screen Projection: Shame
With the release of Widows this past weekend, we have the return of one of the most promising filmmakers of this generation, Steve McQueen. Although Widows is more in the vein of an action thriller, the same cannot be said of his previous work. One example of McQueen’s tendency towards heavy drama is Shame, which takes on very difficult subject matter, namely sexual addiction and obsession. However, that is not what we will be discussing today, because that theme is right on the surface of the film. Everything that comes next is a spoiler for the end of Shame, so if you haven’t watched it, do yourself a favor and experience it immediately.
At its heart, Shame is really about trauma and its repercussions through the life course. And we don’t mean trauma like how you were traumatized because you didn’t get tickets to see your favorite band, but real psychological trauma. As a side note, stop using the term trauma like that, it’s not a good look.
So, let’s talk about what trauma entails. Psychological trauma is damage to the mind that occurs after an event, or many events in worse cases. It often results from more emotional stress than an individual can cope with. It is important to note that you cannot simply look at someone and know that they have been traumatized. Different people process trauma differently. Some act out in an obvious manner, much like the character of Sissy, played by Carey Mulligan. Still others maintain a stoic front until they are simply unable to function. Brandon, portrayed perfectly by Michael Fassbender, is this type to a tee.
One of the most common complaints in film criticism is “show, don’t tell.” Shame never makes that mistake. As a matter of fact, there is never a moment in which the actual trauma that siblings Sissy and Brandon experienced is actually revealed. And this makes sense. They have a shared history, so there is no reason for the two of them to detail exactly what occurred. There is a single line of dialogue from Sissy that gives us the clue near the end of the film: “We’re not bad people, we just come from a bad place.” This trauma has possibly damaged both of them beyond repair. Neither one of them can maintain a relationship, and Sissy has a history of self-harm, indicated by the scars on her arm, as well as a more drastic example in the finale. Brandon, on the other hand, shows none of these overt signs of distress. However, as we are given a view into his extremely private life, there is clear sex addiction and he shows tendencies towards obsession and, not to put too fine a point on it, the shame he experiences afterwards. We see this in many ways, including his extensive porn collection, his predilection towards sex workers, his self-destructive spiral, but mostly his reaction to the only real relationship he experiences. His inability to perform with Marianne (Nicole Beharie), and his subsequent interaction with a prostitute tells us everything we need to know. That relationship is too genuine for him to put up his false front and, as such, the façade and everything that goes with it crumbles immediately.
McQueen’s greatest gift in Shame, which he co-wrote with Abi Morgan, may be his handling of his protagonist, Brandon. There are no punches pulled as the ugliness of his behavior becomes clear, especially in the epic breakdown in the third act. This is difficult to watch due to the ease and charm inherent in a Fassbender performance. However, the choice of drab color and setting is designed to make us feel the isolation and the lack of intimacy Brandon experiences. So, although at the beginning of the film the viewer may be in his corner, it is not long until there is a realization that something is very wrong internally. Brandon has everything, Friends who seem to like him, a sister who wants to spend more time with him, clearly an amazing salary, and at least one good woman who is willing to take a chance on him although she sees his faults. It is not until the final scenes of the film that he shows that he cares about someone, anyone at all. In this terrible and somehow life-affirming moment, the child version of Brandon comes through. By their interactions, it is clear that the only person either sibling could depend on was the other.
As mentioned previously, trauma affects us all differently. Sissy desperately wants to be loved and puts herself literally in harm’s way to feel any amount of that love. Brandon shut himself off long ago and still has not opened himself up to feel those emotions. The only way he knows how to express himself is through anger, and again, only towards Sissy. The ending of the film can be read hopefully as he does not take an opportunity to give in to his sexual desires with yet another stranger. This is important because even with this kind of trauma, which was possibly sexual in nature, there is a chance to heal and to make different choices. Just like there is no one way to react to trauma, there are also many paths to better oneself, and Brandon takes a tiny step in the right direction.