It’s not every day that an art-house film rated NC-17 plays at a major multiplex in Fresno, California. In fact, in the 10+ years of my adult life that I’ve lived in this town, I cannot remember going to see a single one. That changed for me recently when the critical darling “Shame” made a one-week Central Valley run, just ahead of the Academy Award nominations being released. The film didn’t end up earning any Oscar nods, but the buzz was enough to give a handful of people here a chance to see it. After reading a glowing review by local tough-cookie movie critic Donald Munro of The Fresno Bee, my wife and I decided to see it.
“Shame” is directed by British filmmaker and artist Steve McQueen— not to be confused with the late American actor of the same name, whom I remember best from his turn in “The Blob.” McQueen delivers a bleak script for star Michael Fassbender, who unflinchingly plays a protagonist that’s addicted to sex and also addicted to self-hate. Most critics call Fassbender’s performance a powerful, honest achievement. But I couldn’t help but feel there was some missing ingredient.
My wife said that some films do a great job of plopping us down into the lives of their characters without any context, and we can understand them by the performances or the writing alone. For “Shame,” however, it didn’t feel to me like this was the case. The epiphanies didn’t add up, and I couldn’t understand the motivations of the characters to do some of the ugly things they were doing to themselves. I’m glad that we saw the movie, but I can’t say that I liked it. Without a hint of backstory or feeling, “Shame” felt gratuitously ugly.