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My 12 for ’12: Shame & Silence

I’m counting down my top twelve films of the year between now and January, starting at #12 and heading to #1. I expect the list to be a little bit predictable, a little bit surprising, a little bit of everything. All films released in the UK and Ireland in 2012 qualify. Sound off below, and let me know if I’m on the money, or if I’m completely off the radar. And let me know your own picks or recommendations.

This is #2

Addiction stories are very tough to do right. It’s far too easy to get caught up in the melodrama of the cycle – the excess, the withdrawal, the relapse, the epiphany. It’s tempting to wallow in each of those stages, to structure them as acts in a drama. It’s hard to resist the urge to heighten absolutely everything, to dwell on the heat of obsession and desperation that surrounds any addiction.

Director Steve McQueen and actor Michael Fassbender do a sensational job with Shame, avoiding these potential problems, offering a portrayal of addiction and personal collapse that is strangely understated and introverted rather than overwhelming or excessive. Indeed, the fact that the movie is about sex addiction might lead some potential viewers to worry. If ever an addiction lent itself to trashy and tasteless excess, one might imagine that sex would be that personal demon.

Instead, McQueen shows admirable restraint in tackling the topic. While he never blushes in presenting the depths of his lead’s degradation, he never sensationalises it. Instead, much like Brandon’s addiction, Shame is cold and clinical – and all the more powerful for it.

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Shame is a brutal piece of work, masterfully constructed. It remains the film on this list that I have revisited least. That’s not because I don’t like it (it ranks, after all, as my second-favourite film of the year), but rather because it is a remarkably uncomfortable film. It’s not the nudity or the sex that makes it so uncomfortable. It’s the fact that the film refuses to adhere to the structure we’ve come to expect from a film like this.

I had the pleasure, recently, of seeing Flight. It’s another movie about addiction, only concerning alcohol. It’s a perfect okay piece of film, with several glaring weaknesses that a fantastic supporting cast aren’t quite around enough to remedy, but it structures itself far more conventionally than Steve McQueen’s harrowing portrayal of addiction. Our lead character has his highs and his lows, he is confronted about his addiction, he struggles with it and his colleagues and friends try to help him only for his life to completely implode in a rather spectacular fashion.

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Flight ends wrapped up a neat bow, a nice speech from the character explaining how everything that happened was for a good reason, and that his demons have finally been wrestled with. If they haven’t quite been defeated, the are at least pinned down and recognised for what they are. Flight features a superb cast and a great leading performance, and it’s not afraid to explore the ugliness and desperation of addiction. However, it’s also predictable and somewhat logical.

Shame is not as predictable as Flight, and it’s nowhere near as loud. Brandon, our leading character, does suffer from a breakdown in the film that pushes him to new lows, but it’s never treated in a melodramatic sort of way. His secret never really comes out, and it’s implied that the people around him are liable to make excuses. His sister discovers he has a pornography habit, but it’s never suggested she knows the depths of his problem. It is, of course, demonstrated that she has problems of her own.

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So Brandon’s boss remains in the dark about his problems. When a stash of pornography is found on his computer, he chalks it up to one of the anonymous interns. Nobody seems to notice Brandon’s semi-regular bathroom breaks. He’s high-functioning enough that he calmly and quietly arranges a rendezvous with a beautiful woman while his drunken boss strikes out. Brandon is charming, polite and handsome. Nobody taking a look at this PR executive would ever imagine he has these sorts of demons.

And that is the beauty of Shame. This isn’t a story about an addict exploding and burning out. By the time we meet him, Brandon has been living this way for a long time. There’s no intervention scene here. There is a downward spiral that kicks into gear when his sister comes to visit, and it seems like Brandon might find himself balancing at the very edge of the abyss, ready to be swallowed and consumed by his addiction, but there’s no “big” moment where he talks about it, or he explains it, or he comes out the other side.

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Indeed, Shame ends with the very real possibility that Brandon hasn’t come out the other side, that he hasn’t managed to escape his demons and that he might find himself right back where he started. It’s a bold and powerful conclusion to the film, one that accepts that sometimes things don’t resolve as easily as we might like. In a year packed with explosions and epics, melodrama and music, Shame stands out for its dignified silence in tackling its subject matter.

Check out our 12 favourite films of 2012:

12. The Raid (Redemption)

11. Skyfall

10. Room 237

09. Jeff Who Lives at Home

08. Moonrise Kingdom

07. Silver Linings Playbook

06. The Master

05. Prometheus

04. Cabin in the Woods

03. The Muppets

02. Shame

2 Responses

  1. Shame is an incredibly well observed and written film. Fassbender nails this type of addiction perfectly.

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