Genre: Indie Drama
Premise: A man must deal with day to day life while fighting his crippling sex addiction.
About: This is the next project for rising star Michael Fassbender, who was said to have had the inside track to star in the new Total Recall remake, although now that role looks to have gone to Colin Farrell. The Inglorious Basterds vet has a role in the upcoming X-Men movie, and is said to have a part in the new Hobbit films, though I’m not sure what that part would be. The director and co-writer, Steve McQueen, is also a rising star who’s constantly looking to push the film medium. Many of his early films were made to be projected onto three walls instead of one. His style is very minimalist. His last film, “Hunger,” about Irish hunger striker Bobby Sands, was well-received. His co-writer, Abi Morgan, is a successful TV writer who has recently segued into features.
Writers: Steve McQueen and Abi Morgan
Details: 119 pages, June 28th, 2010 draft (This is an early draft of the script. The situations, characters, and plot may change significantly by the time the film is released. This is not a definitive statement about the project, but rather an analysis of this unique draft as it pertains to the craft of screenwriting).
Indie movie scripts are kind of like Indian food. They’re either the best meal you’ve ever had or a horrible adventure that puts you in the bathroom all night. Okay, well, maybe that’s not the best analogy. But reading indie scripts always feels like a gamble to me. Before I open them I’m constantly saying to myself, “Please don’t be a pointless wandering character study where nothing happens. Please don’t be a pointless wandering character study where nothing happens.”
The big issue is that most of them tend to lack any drama, and it’s often hard to tell if it’s because the writer doesn’t know how to write or because they don’t believe in the conventions of artificially constructed conflict. There’s a lot of “real life is boring” as a rationalization for why 30 pages can go by with nothing happening. There’s definitely an audience for this, and the mumblecore movement proves it, but my feeling is that if you’re going to sit an audience down for a couple of hours, make something happen onscreen. We want to see some drama.
So, does Shame fall into that aforementioned category? Or does it rise above and become an interesting indie story?
Brandon is in his late-20s. By the way people treat him, we assume he’s good looking, but we never actually know because for some reason McQueen and Morgan keep that information a secret, limiting his description to his age. This was my first uncomfortable moment with the script. It seems like in a movie about sex addiction, what the protagonist looks like, whether he’s ugly or handsome, would be an incredibly important detail to the story. But I digress.
We follow Brandon through his mundane daily life, going to work, mulling through the streets, chilling at his apartment. McQueen’s minimalist tendencies are on full display here, as we rarely hear anyone even speak. And when someone does speak, it tends to be irrelevant to the story. It’s just people talking like they’d talk in real life, in chopped off phrases and random observations. On the one hand it’s frustrating but on the other, it creates a distance between you and the story that strangely helps you understand Brandon’s distant character better.
Eventually David’s sister, Sissy, arrives at his apartment, needing to stay for awhile. The two have a friendly if strange relationship, arguing often about petty things and resorting back to childlike tendencies such as calling each other names and tickle fights.
But the real issue here is that Sissy is intruding on Brandon’s secret. You see, Brandon is a sex addict. He goes to the bathroom at work any chance he gets in order to masturbate. He fills up his days with internet porn. The graphic outline of a female body on a shampoo bottle can get him off.
Alone, he can feed this addiction. But with his sister there, it starts putting undo pressure on this shameful side of him, which begins manifesting itself in his day to day life.
Eventually he meets Marianne, a new assistant at work. In a way, he sees her as his salvation. If he can find a way to have a normal relationship with a woman, maybe he can finally overcome these urges. However, like a lot of the script, it’s hard to get a feel for their relationship. Words are barely uttered between the two, giving us no insight into their characters. Again, I think it’s supposed to feel more like real life, but instead, the characters just feel thin. I’m not looking for, “My dad died when I was six so I moved in with my grandparents and then got cancer at 13…” but how people talk and what people say and even a simple opinion here or there is what brings characters alive. Without that, we don’t know these people.
Anyway, Brandon starts living this double life where he’s dating Marianne yet satisfying his insatiable sexual appetite with anyone else he can find. His sister is digging further and further into his condo, forcing Brandon to stay out later and later. Will Brandon overcome his sexual addition in time to save his relationship with Marianne or become a victim of it? “Shame” keeps you guessing til the end.
If you’ve been paying attention, you probably already know my reaction to this. “Shame” is unapologetically minimalist. It’s indie to indie extreme. And like I mentioned at the beginning, I just don’t respond to that.
There were so many opportunities for conflict and drama here that were avoided, I couldn’t help but feel frustrated. For example, there’s a subplot at work where Brandon’s been accumulating a lot of porn on his computer. He then comes to work one day to find out his computer has gone in for repair. They have to go through the hard drive and clean out some viruses.
This would appear to be the setup for a great dramatic sequence. How does he get the computer back before they find the porn? The stakes are pretty high as well. He might end up losing his job. But a few scenes later, the problem resolves itself. Brandon doesn’t have to do anything. Again, this may be how it happens in real life, but can’t we all agree that watching our protagonist try to solve a problem is way more interesting than it simply getting fixed on its own?
I think the most frustrating subplot of the script, however, is the sister Sissy. (Sorta spoiler) A ton of emphasis is put on this weird relationship between the two that’s full of tension and flirting and unfinished business. Coupled with Brandon’s uncontrollable sexual urges, it seems like 70 pages is all leading up to something happening between the two. And yet, it never does, making you wonder if the sister should’ve ever been introduced into the story in the first place.
I will concede that the last 30 pages pick up considerably. We watch Brandon’s addiction spiral out of control and to the writers’ credit, I don’t think it would’ve had quite the same punch if the script hadn’t been such the slow burn that it was.
But in the end, I think I have a different philosophy on telling stories than McQueen and Morgan. They wanted to convey real life. I wanted the drama that only a good fictional story can provide. I’m guessing some of you will really hate this and some of you will really like it. If you enjoy Soderbergh’s experimental films like Bubble and Keane (which he produced) or any Mumblecore films, you should give this a shot. But if you like a little more drama for your buck, like me, my advice is to pass.
[ ] What the hell did I just read?
[x] wasn’t for me
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius
What I learned: The porn-at-work storyline really bothered me because you never want your protaginist’s problems to just solve themselves. It’s boring and feels like a cheat. The audience WANTS to see your character try to solve his/her problems. That’s what they come to watch. The character may not succeed. But you at least have to show them trying.