In my book Shame director Steve McQueen has been inspected and identified to a fare-thee-well by New Yorker critic Anthony Lane. I would go so far as to say that for readers of Lane’s 12.5 review, which first appeared six days ago, the McQueen mystique is no more. He will continue to create and make films and whatnot, but from this point on he has no clothes.
“McQueen, a Brit who attended art schools and worked in visual installation before turning to feature films, was lauded for Hunger (2008), and rightly so, although even that movie, about an I.R.A. hunger-striker” — played by Shame‘s Michael Fassbender — “was imperilled by the coolness of its own gaze. The wall of a jail cell, smeared with excrement as an act of protest, was filmed with such compositional care that it became, in effect, a work of abstract art, allowing us to forget what it actually was: human waste, applied with human rage, and surely unbearable to the human nose.
“McQueen could hardly be hipper, yet he remains, to an extent, an old-fashioned aesthete, drawn to extreme behavior in his characters not because of any trials of spirit that they undergo but because he is challenging himself to unleash the wildest material that he, wielding his camera, can then possess and tame.
“The result is pure and pitiless, and, in the case of Shame, oddly disapproving. The film has an NC-17 rating, and it will prompt the customary gasps of outrage, but no viewer, however prim, could be harsher on the uncontrollable Brandon than the director is. At no point is the philanderer permitted to look as if he might be enjoying himself, and Fassbender, who was, frankly, much sexier and more devilish in X-Men: First Class, is required to spend much of his time staring with blank intensity into the middle distance.
“Whether Brandon is ashamed, as the movie’s title proposes, is open to debate; he looks merely shattered to me, roped to his own runaway habits, and although he does have one discernible rush of self-loathing: cramming his carnal detritus into garbage sacks, all you can think is, How charmingly retro! A guy who still buys porno magazines!
“Later, in one tidal wave of a night, he comes on to a woman in a bar, gets hoofed in the face by her boyfriend, swings by a gay club for a brief encounter (any port in a storm), and then rounds off the evening with a nice warm threesome. His companions, in that climactic bout, are played by DeeDee Luxe and Calamity Chang, two names that made me happier than anything else in the film.
“No such joy for Brandon; while his body is enmeshed with theirs, his face is trapped in a desperate rictus, as if he were nearing the loudest sneeze of his life, and what McQueen treasures here is the sullen aftermath, with the drained lecher sitting and crying beside the rotting piers of a wharf. And that’s what happens to naughty little boys.”