Shame (2011)

The pivotal scene of “Shame” has Brandon (Michael Fassbender) and his boss David (James Badge Dale) watching Brandon’s sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) sing in a fancy, high-above-Manhattan cocktail lounge. She’s singing a version of “New York, New York” in a fragile voice and at a glacial pace, wringing pathos from a song that might not deserve it. Director Steve McQueen fills the frame with Sissy’s face for almost the whole protracted length of the song, her eyes flickering downward but with little expression. Only briefly are we allowed to glance away from Sissy to the table where David sits, like us, captivated, and Brandon cannot quite bear to watch.

We have been introduced to Brandon as a successful thirtysomething Manhattanite, living alone. We see him in the opening scenes padding naked around his apartment, watching porn, having sex with a prostitute, flirting silently on the subway. None of what we see seems seedy. He conspicuously and repeatedly ignores a message on his answering machine from a female voice, someone who clearly has strong feelings for him in some way. Celebrating success at work with his colleagues, he outflirts David before a group of women; when he leaves, one picks him up for some al fresco sex.

We learn that the voice on the answering machine is Sissy’s. She appears in Brandon’s apartment one day, surprising him despite the messages. We see her as emotive, demonstrative, playful – a musician, a performer – utterly at odds with Brandon. She is disruptive to him, but he allows her to stay for a time.

Later, in the lounge, as Sissy’s song ends there are tears in Brandon’s eyes. Why? Because he is forced, like us, to watch? Throughout the film we are permitted to sense some of what he feels for Sissy but we are never allowed to know why. If Brandon’s shame relates directly to her, in any way – if it even has a source – we can only guess. David, on the other hand, is awed by Sissy’s performance; whatever Brandon is being forced to feel, David, unencumbered, feels only attraction. David and Sissy openly flirt, and end up together, loudly, in Brandon’s bed. Brandon is forced out, to run on the nearly empty, late-night Manhattan streets. McQueen shows us Brandon’s run in a long, side-on tracking shot that reflects the long scene of Sissy’s song. We saw her up close and static, but we see him in motion. Whatever he is feeling we have to infer from his movements.

Sissy becomes the object for David. Is this what Brandon cannot stand? His relationship with Sissy is the only real relationship we have seen him to hold, yet David sees her in the same way that we have seen Brandon look at prostitutes and strangers on the train. I found it almost maddening to guess whether Brandon was feeling possessiveness or was spurred to feel something about his own life. Whatever it is, it drives him for the rest of the film. He tries to establish a proper relationship with a coworker, and goes on a real date. But Sissy is there when he gets home, there to observe him, and perhaps there in his mind when he cannot consummate his new relationship. He seems unable to address his relationship to Sissy, and unable to establish a relationship with someone else.

In this limbo, “Shame” remains beautiful throughout. McQueen presents a New York that I saw as rich and flat, as if seen through a window. We first see Brandon from only the torso down, but by the end his face is profoundly unhidden, and the progression is matched by Fassbender’s transition from feline assurance to unrestrained doubt.

I found it difficult to see “Shame” as an addiction movie, despite that Brandon is explicitly intended to be a sex addict. His behavior is certainly not normal – or at least it covers the whole spectrum of normalness from top to bottom – but the degree of his compulsiveness seems entirely reasonable. No revelations about addiction will be forthcoming; the film is infused with sex, but this is about the sibling relationship between Brandon and Sissy. She is undeniable, and he is defensive. McQueen and Mulligan combine to make Sissy magnetic, but still Brandon cannot be drawn in.

Links: IMDb

Drive (2011)

The Driver (Ryan Gosling) is economical of action when we see him at work. I found it easier to believe in him as an expert driver than if he had chattered and had his head on a swivel as in more whizz-bang car chases. Outside of the car he is equally reserved, using few words and leaving long pauses before speaking or acting. Perhaps this is why his decisions also seem so assured?

The Driver is introduced in a getaway job that immediately places the film’s action as more Michael Mann than Michael Bay, and establishes the Driver as a craftsman. He is a wheelman, stunt driver, and mechanic, all in association with his mentor-like boss Shannon (Bryan Cranston). We see him perform a driving stunt on a movie set, and the Driver seems invincible behind the wheel. The distinction between legal and illegal is fuzzy; work is work. The same seems true for Bernie (Albert Brooks), who claims a former career as movie producer and now a middling criminal boss. Shannon talks him into bankrolling a stock car venture for the Driver.

The scheme will not see fruition. The Driver meets his neighbor Irene (Carey Mulligan) and bonds with her young son Benecio (Kaden Leos). Irene’s husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) is in prison; she and the Driver form a friendship that is suggestive but decorous. The Driver is honorable and restrained.

Upheaval arrives when Standard is released, but thankfully not because Standard is angered by the interloper. His jealousy is allowed to flicker, but he too is allowed to be honorable and accepting. This becomes crucial. Standard is beaten and his family threatened; if he does not work to steal money to repay arbitrary prison  protection fees, Irene and Benecio will be targeted. The Driver, with no explicit prompting, negotiates the job with himself as wheelman in exchange for Standard’s debt to be considered repaid. In this way the mutual respect of the two men, through Irene, is the pivot on which the tragedy turns, as the “good” and simple heist goes wrong, and the consequences unfold.

But through it all the Driver consistently makes sensible choices (notwithstanding some of the vicious violence attached). We are told almost nothing about him in the film, yet he is permitted some open emotion that jars with the “anonymous stranger”. What is going through his head? Early on the long, watchful pauses seem detached, maybe affected cool. As the Driver becomes more and more helpless to inevitability and the pauses are stoic and damp-eyed I wondered if maybe he was uncertain of himself all along. He is presented as a classic loner but ultimately seems lonely.

“Drive” reminded me a bit of another lonely film in “Lost in Translation”. Some of the visuals parallel, especially the soft focus city-at-night scenes and the music was used in a way that felt similar. The tone of Irene’s relationship with the Driver mirrors that movie too: it is brief, profound and restrained, although of course the characters are very different. Carey Mulligan seems not to take a deep breath throughout, Irene never totally relaxed and eventually drained by grief.

The Driver remains an expert to the end, but cannot end reassured. His best abilities and best-available decisions cannot salvage much from the inevitable path of events. Gosling shows this vulnerability and frustration with understatement, which is more than enough after the extreme reservation of the first half. The exception to this understatement is followed by the most poignant moment in “Drive”. The Driver’s most passionate outburst, of desire and violence, comes in an elevator with Irene and a man presumably sent to hurt them. Afterwards, Irene, grieving and freshly shocked, backs away and says nothing as the elevator door closes on the Driver. His reservation was briefly dropped, but his reward is to be left immediately speechless and alone. Later, after the story here is over, I wondered if he would have been changed by what happened, if the next person to meet him would see something that we didn’t.

Links: IMDb, Metacritic