The most fascinating thing about Shame, last year's most egregious Oscar snub, is how ambiguous it really is. Everyone who sees it seems convinced that it had some really clear message that is completely different from the message that other people got out of it. Does this make it a failure? I don't think so.
A lesser film would have mickey-moused it's audience into reaching certain conclusions about its characters and their actions. What Shame does is present entirely believable characters, and simply showing us the truth of human life. The events of the movie aren't ambiguous at all, but what we take away from the film is.
Shame is the story of Brandon (Michael Fassbender), a successful businessman of some undefined trade who is a sex addict. He voraciously consumes sex in all forms (always consensual): prostitutes, pornography, one-night stands, you name it. Clearly he takes little pleasure in the activity, and it's more of a compulsion than a passion. It is revealed that he has never had a steady relationship that lasted for any length of time, and has no real interest in one.
At the same time, men find him likable and dependable, and women find him fascinating. In several scenes, he goes out drinking with his boss, who is married but a shameless womanizer. The boss indulges in the most obvious and shameless pick up ploys imaginable, while women cast curious gazes at Brandon, who has a certain magnetic appeal despite his efforts to deflect all attention away from himself. Yet he is incapable of enjoying a normal relationship, and physical intimacy is only possible for Brandon through casual or paid encounters.
Brandon lives a life that functions as a giant decoy for who he really is. He appears to have no interest other than sex, yet at work he remains pleasantly anonymous. His office computer's hard drive is filled with pornography, but nobody has a clue. The shell of his life begins to crack when he gains an unwanted roommate: His sister Sissy, who we gather has been bad news for Brandon for her entire life.
Sissy moves into his apartment by decree, and their relationship is clearly just not right. Both of them are a little too familiar and mentally occupied with each other, and while there's no suggestion that incest has ever occurred, there's clearly some unhealthy baggage between the two of them. Pretty much everything Sissy does qualifies as a cry for help, especially when Brandon attempts to remove her from his life. It's shocking how bluntly she uses the phrase "I love you" as an attack, to wound and shame Brandon in moments of conflict.
The one thing that is clear about Brandon is that he needs serious therapy. For what? Well, that's where things get a little murky. My take on the film is that despite his endless sex drive, Brandon can't make the transition from friend to lover. He's personable, and even takes a co-worker on a date at one point. But when he tries to make the relationship physical, he's incapable of doing so. Many people I've known have struggled with the virgin / whore dichotomy, or the "friend-zone", or whatever you want to classify it as. But that's why porn, whores, and one-night stands appeal to him. No hang ups, no responsibility, no intimacy. The endless clinging of his insane sister clearly doesn't help matters.
Brandon is clearly miserable, but it's clear from this film that he's not likely to ever recieve treatment or analysis due to the way the world sees his ailment. Modern America is a very uptight society when it comes to sex, and another character dismisses fans of pornography as sick perverts. The reaction of many critics to this film backs this up even more. Many describe it as an after-school special exposing the dangers of sex. I see a potentially good person crushed under the weight of his own shame.
Who among us would feel comfortable proclaiming "I am a sex addict", "I need help interacting with women romantically" or "I have an unhealthy relationship with my sister"? We vilify those who suffer, and Fassbender's portrait of suffering is one of the most compelling I've ever seen. In moments of crisis, he throws himself into ever more dangerous situations and becomes more self-destructive. At the end of the film he has an emotional breakdown on a pier in the rain. It sounds so cliched, and yet the actor somehow never completely lets go. He's still penning his tension up inside, even when falling to the ground crying, which is all the more heartbreaking.
The final shot (which bookends an early one) is absolutely perfect. I saw the film with a friend who interpreted the meaning of that scene (and the film) in an entirely different way. Yet we both felt the same way about the ending. I think that speaks to the brilliance of Shame. Sometimes fiction hits notes of truth so pure that they are sharper than real life. Shame holds a mirror up to the America in which we live today. What do we see? It's up to us to figure that out.