Suddenly I started to lose, couldn’t control myself and lost everything.”

–  Fyodor Dostoevsky, “The Gambler”

It is the inevitable trajectory of the addict. The ones who seek escape in bedlam, and end up losing themselves completely, consumed by a vicious and unrelenting hunger for more (always more). No matter the addiction, the path is the same. Such is a path explored in Shame, an unflinching portrait of a man consumed by self-loathing and desperate loneliness, inexplicably closed in by the walls of a city defined by excess. The result is a sensitive and searing examination of human impulse, and the finest film of the year.

The first frame is startling in its simplicity and complete encapsulation of the entire tone of the film. Brandon (Michael Fassbender) lies in bed, an unreadable expression on his face, for some time before rising. Establishing exposition is unnecessary – the film almost seems an intrusion at an awkward angle in his life, heightening the intimate atmosphere. The brilliant cinematography further juxtaposes the external and internal; the outer chaos and the inner war – the ambient soundscapes of New York City at night contrasted with the eerie stillness of Brandon’s flat. Indeed, the interior of the flat is the essence of the film itself, all white sterility, clean lines, and soundless empty spaces throbbing with emotional repression. Brandon attempts to shroud himself in normalcy, layering unassuming masks over one another, until the abrupt arrival of his sister (in a ferociously uninhibited performance from Carey Mulligan) threatens to uproot him.

McQueen is a master of raw consciousness; his lens honest and unjudging of his characters, and scenes meticulously constructed. The narrative oscillates between moments of flickering tension and explosive power, reflecting Brandon’s emotional turmoil. We can almost see the film as a study in dramatic irony, as we can perfectly anticipate the outcomes of Brandon’s actions before they happen; watching as he makes one mistake after another, delving deeper into perilous urgency. Furthermore, no mention of this film can be complete without Michael Fassbender’s electrifyingly restrained and subtle performance of Brandon, a Dostoevskian portrait of a man and his foibles, broken by his weaknesses. Every line of his face, every flicker of his eyes, and every muscle in his jaw conveys unguarded and desperate emotional anguish. It is a performance comparable to Hunger, but with an added psychological and affecting intensity that is compelling and heartrending to witness.

In the last several years, McQueen has proven himself to be the most acute observer of the human condition in all its frailties; a contemporary Dostoevsky, with his constructions of flawed martyrs and broken men. As beautiful as we can be, there lies in us a terribly ugliness; tearing away superficialities to reveal a bleak and bleeding rendition of the soul, blackened and tired (“I am a sick man…I am a wicked man!”). The final scene of Shame is breathtaking in its simplicity, leaving an unanswered question burning uncomfortably in the back of your throat. Does the answer matter? Of course – but depending on whether you believe that redemption is possible or not makes all the difference.

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