Toronto: Michael Fassbender, as a sex addict, and Woody Harrelson, as a very bad cop, get down and dirty in the overhyped 'Shame' and the mesmerizing 'Rampart'


Image Credit: Film Imges

There are a number of good reasons why Shame is one of the buzziest films of this year's Toronto festival. It's a tale with the hooky subject of sex addiction. It's the second feature directed by Steve McQueen, the British art world superstar-turned-filmmaker whose first film, Hunger (2008), was a powerfully explicit and intense drama about the 1981 Bobby Sands-led Irish prison hunger strike. And it stars Michael Fassbender, the rising star from Inglourious Basterds and X-Men: First Class, who only last week took home the Best Actor prize at the Venice Film Festival for his performance in Shame as a tormented yuppie Manhattan loner in a long winter coat and American Psycho hair who is secretly hooked on sex with strangers, sex with prostitutes, Internet porn, pleasuring himself in the shower, pleasuring himself in the bathroom at work...

The guy is never satisfied. Yet none of that randy activity begins to make him a happy camper. He's joyless, you see; he can't "connect." I used the hopelessly outdated word yuppie on purpose to describe Fassbender's quietly morose, rather desperate sex machine of a character, because there's something else about Shame that's a little dated: its whole lugubrious, moralistic Looking for Ms. Slutbar vibe, in which a man who craves easy, impersonal sex has to be punished for it by experiencing misery around the clock.

Of course, if Shame were a well-made lugubrious, moralistic sex-addict drama, I might be tempted to cut it a little more slack. The movie, though, is overstated yet slipshod -- and, to be honest, often solemnly preposterous. I was a major fan of Hunger, but here, setting a tale of compulsive lust amid the streets and bars and sharply angled river-view apartments of New York City, McQueen seems to lose his bearings. On a typical New York subway ride, no one flirts, or even much looks at each other, but this movie has women -- with wedding rings! -- flashing come-hither grins at Fassbender during the morning commute. His boss and drinking buddy is a manic caricature of an inept pickup artist, whereas Fassbender's Brandon is more than smooth; women tumble for him at a glance.

Fassbender, there's no doubt, is a major actor, but he gives a real suffering-saint performance. There are too many moments when he's not saying anything and you start to notice that the way he's been photographed, he looks like a pastier Daniel Day-Lewis. Shame has more than its share of pretension, but not nearly enough of a script. The movie is full of indulgent, wordless sequences in which swooning music floods the soundtrack and we have to sit there guessing what's going on in everyone's head. Then again, all the guessing in the world wouldn't explain the film's most baffling character: Brandon's sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), an adorable suicidal wreck who stalks him on his answering machine, breaks into his apartment, and cuddles up to him in a semi-incestuous fashion. Mulligan's incongruously bouncy presence quickly becomes irritating, because no matter what she says or does, we can't make sense of this character or their relationship. (Worst scene: Mulligan does a nightclub performance -- in one endlessly extended, super-closeup shot -- of "New York, New York," and I'm still trying to figure out what this Annie Hall-meets-Béla Tarr number is doing in the movie.) Yet since she's the only one who Brandon really talks to, she's the closest thing the film has to an explanation of his problems.

Shame is the sort of movie in which Brandon finally lands a date with a woman who's sexy and adorable and really clicks with him, and when they go out to eat, instead of creating an interesting scene, McQueen spends 10 minutes staging shockingly dumb jokes about wine lists and lamb served extra rare, as if no one in the movie -- or the audience -- had ever been to an upscale restaurant before. When the time finally arrives, Brandon can't bring himself to have sex with her; he can't deal with the "tenderness." But since when did two people who really like each other need to have "tender" boring vanilla sex? Shame is full of the sort of nice-girl/nasty-girl dichotomies that seemed trapped in the past by the time of Sex and the City. It's also full of half-baked notions of Our Inner Emptiness.

* * * *


Image Credit: Film Images

Oren Moverman’s Rampart is a terrific film: tense, shocking, complex, mesmerizing. We’ve all seen zillions of movies that use a hand-held camera to set a visual mood of random, zigzaggy “caught” reality. But hours after I saw Rampart, the story of a very bad L.A. patrolman, played with intricate demonic force  by Woody Harrelson (imagine his wily sociopath from Natural Born Killers…but 20 years older and on the other side of the law), I still couldn’t figure out how Moverman was able to give the film such a raw, hand-held vérité look yet still create a mood that’s so… unique. It has something to do with the way he layers on close-ups, using them to make the audience feel as if it’s surrounded, and also with how he smudges the background colors, turning them into a dirty kaleidoscope, the way Scorsese did in Taxi Driver, so that we never feel we’re too far outside the mind of Harrelson’s Dave Brown, a veteran officer who’s like a coiled, super-intelligent animal let loose in the jungle.

Dave is an old-school LAPD badass, a viciously self-justifying racist who views himself as a “soldier,” and Rampart, named for the dangerous, densely populated west and northwest Los Angeles districts his division patrols, presents him as fierce kind of relic. The movie is set in 1999, when the department was still working to re-tailor its image for the post-Rodney King world, but Dave, who beats up suspects, and will kill criminal “scum” without very much hesitation, is shrewd about covering his tracks. He’s a sordid predator who prowls the city, his mind oiled by martinis that never quite get him drunk (just angry), sleeping with women who are drawn, often against their better judgment, by his hostile physical power. He’s also got a rather kinky domestic setup that feels very L.A. creepy: He married two sisters (not at the same time), played by Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon, and now the women, Dave, and their kids all live in the same adjoining houses; he won’t let them go (literally). The violence you feel watching Harrelson isn’t in his actions — it’s in the threat that comes off him like steam heat, the constant possibility of violence.

Rampart was co-written by Moverman and James Ellroy, and it just about seethes with ugly insider knowledge of what really goes on in the minds of cops. Dave is a fearless officer — in one way, a star — who has been in hot water for most of his career, going back to the scandal in which he killed a serial date-rapist (hence Dave’s nickname: Date-Rape) but got away with it because he passed off what may have been a cold-blooded execution as “street justice.” The other beat cops fear and admire him, because he acts out their aggression, and whenever he’s called before a supervisor, or a commission, or what have you, he snaps into diabolically clever bureaucratic language. As a crook, Dave would have been a big success, but as a cop, he’s a legally sanctioned sociopath.

The movie has a lot in common with Bad Lieutenant (both versions), except that that tale was studded with baroquely outsize noir elements. Moverman, the former screenwriter (I’m Not There) who made his directorial debut with the homefront Iraq drama The Messenger (2009), works in a mode that’s more hellishly close-to-the-bone gritty. He turns L.A. into a jagged inferno that starts to circle around Dave like a noose. A number of scenes in The Messenger were brilliant, but the movie as a whole grew a touch unwieldy. Now I think that Moverman emerges as a major directorial voice. He’s got more than talent — he’s got a filmmaking fever. Rampart is a thriller on fire.

Follow Owen on Twitter: @OwenGleiberman

Comments (38 total) Add your comment
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  • Chelsea

    UGH, you’re way off base about Shame. Try to be a little more condescending in your next review.

    • Tara

      Don’t believe the review, it’s an amazing movie

      • Leo

        I thought the movie was exceptional and thought Fassbender did an amazing job. The sister gave insight into the family – she’s more comfortable with the incestuous relationship, whereas he just shut off his emotions but was marred psychologically and handles it via sex addiction. They are both stuck as being perhaps the first person for each other to have awakened sexually and also the only people they can truly communicate with. They are both messed up but act it out differently. She lives larger than life, he lives hidden as someone no one knows.
        And if you ask a person who has struggled with sex addiction, there are always people who will have sex with you – on the subway, at bars, married, single – they find each other quite easily. Most aren’t picky at all so they take whatever they can get. If one is good looking like Fassbender, he’d have it made in the shade.

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    • tosh

      Fassbender is a hugely over rated actor.

  • Andy

    Wow, your Shame review is practically the exact opposite of everything else I’ve read. Even down to most early reviews naming the New York, New York nightclub scene as one of their favorites. It’ll be interesting to see if this is another Transformers 2/Hangover 2 level embarrassment for you, or if your negative review is a bad sign of things to come for Shame. Most people, including myself, haven’t seen it yet, so I guess we’ll see.

    • Tara

      Sometimes I believe some critics write this kind of review to make themselves beautiful in the eye of other people. This also reminds me why I don’t read EW anymore.

      • brant

        you just lurk around the comments boards – what an upgrade in how you spend your time.

    • Ethan

      “Embarrassment?” I think Owen is quite happy to support his opinions when others don’t. You’ve never seen a movie and disagreed with other people who loved it? He writes what he experienced during the movie.

  • Keith

    Wow. Not expecting this review re: Shame. I’ll be curious to see what I think.

  • Tess McGill

    The last time I enjoyed any Woody Harrelson performance was on Cheers, so I have to pass on this. I’ll give Shame a shot.

  • gazmo

    Try The Messenger, Zombieland and/or Transsiberian. Harrelson has become a MAJOR character actor and his work is fantastic.
    You’ve been missing out!!

    • skg

      I agree. He is worth watching in almost everything he does.

  • Renaton

    While I know critics will feel differently about certain films, the reasons why Owen didn’t like it feel very simplistic. Like, long wordless sequences are a bad thing for a movie? Since when? And why do we need to know in these particular sequences what the characters are feeling? It’s like Owen is saying that subtlety makes the film worse.

    I haven’t seen the film, and maybe I might not like it, but this review is just badly written and kinda silly, no other how good or bad the film might be.

    • Renaton

      Oh, and I’ve been flirted with in the subway once or twice in my life. Not something common, but not something absurd. Using that sort of thing as base for a bad review tells me that you weren’t willing to get in the film and IT’S ideas about sexuality and the characters, so you just decided to find details to try to justify this very biased view.

      Again, I haven’t watched, but inspite of the film being good or bad, this review is just awful.

  • Sean D


    You confuse me sometimes. Most of the time I really enjoy your reviews (and I know, I’m guilty because of course I’ve never commented to say how much I agree with your thoughts, I’m only spurred to action when I disagree. Sorry about that), but when you write negative reviews of widely celebrated films, often you just write things that seem bizarrely petty, and actively refusing of the film’s ideas. You didn’t like ‘Shame’ because you think it paints NYC subways inaccurately, you don’t think some people have an inner emptiness and unhappiness, and you didn’t know what some of the scenes meant? It sounds like you really didn’t give this a chance. I felt the same way when you reviewed ‘Synecdoche New York’ and ‘Let the Right One In,’ and I didn’t even enjoy the former.

    A fan,

    • Sean D

      Granted, of course I haven’t seen ‘Shame’ yet. So, maybe a bit premature for me to defend. It’s just your complaints sound a bit baseless. Again, sorry.

  • Jon

    A man “who is secretly hooked on sex with strangers, sex with prostitutes, Internet porn, pleasuring himself in the shower, pleasuring himself in the bathroom at work…” That does NOT describe sex addiction. There is a fundamental flaw when it comes to people understanding what sex addiction is really about. Quite frankly, they should change the name, because that’s a big part of the problem. There’s a big difference between being a horndog and being a sex addict. Sex addiction usually stems from some mental, physical or sexual trauma in a person’s life, and it doesn’t mean you have sex with everything that moves. It has as much to do with your inability to maintain a normal relationship than anything else.

    I’m surprised Owen likes “Rampart” — it sounds like every other renegade-LA-cop drama that’s been made in the last 15 years. An old-school guy who punches first and asks questions later, who’s as much a criminal as the people he’s arresting, who has substance-abuse issues and is always on the edge of disaster… blah, blah, blah. It’s been done so many times before (David Ayer has done it the best). James Ellroy cranks these tales out all the time.

  • Brooke

    He is actually dead-on about Shame. I came out of the film saying…”Yeah – so dude is addicted to sex..Whatever.”. I was not impressed at all. Fassbender is good, but this film is so freaking overhyped. Great score though….really powerful in certain scenes.

  • Tim

    I ride the nyc subway all the time and, Owen, there’s definitely flirting and more. I’ve seen people meet, make eyes and then exit a train together. I think you’re on the wrong subway line.

    • Dinda

      Look up the reviews and find sompalece nice. The W and Westin Hotels are very well-maintained and each contains a Heavenly Bed. No, I dont work for them, but my wife and I particularly enjoyed ourselves when we could stay there as part of a business trip.

  • Lauren

    Haters gonna hate (re: Shame)

  • Keira

    “On a typical New York subway ride, no one flirts, or even much looks at each other, but this movie has women — with wedding rings! — flashing come-hither grins at Fassbender during the morning commute.”

    Owen, if someone as gorgeous as Michael Fassbender were sitting across from me on the subway, you can bet I’d be flirting with him!

    • Renaton

      Hell, I’d be doing more than, sista!

  • vitaliy

    wow. The director of Shame made you guess at what the character was feeling or thinking, rather than having the character explicitly tell you?

    Excuse him, for assuming you had a brain.

  • Joy

    Hi Owen, Although your review is good and well written, you’ve have made very literal observations about the subject. For e.g. You are right about the subway but the scene is meant to explain the way an addicts work i.e. if its not the subway then it would be some other pickup place. The thing about the sister and her actions being unexplainable is meant to show that family relations are always extremely confusing for addicts. The point about long silences has been added so that the audience can also feel a sense of loss of meaning and the extreme difficulty that arises when you have to read someone’s else thought. For an addict its his own thoughts that are most perplexing. Finally, the tender scene is meant to signify that if love ever enters the life of an addict, he doesn’t understand what to do with it because love undermines his very method living and demands of him something that he can’t feel easily but something he knows he needs.

  • Brody

    The large majority of these comments feel written by the exact same person who probably has a Michael Fassbender poster in their bedroom. So almost no one but Owen has actually seen this movie but they are willing to defend it and call Owen wrong? Wow, that makes a lot of sense.

    I loved Owen’s Rampart review (which I have seen, and it is everything he says). He’s one of the last true writers working at Entertainment Weekly. I like reading his reviews because I feel he doesn’t just skim the surface of the movie he’s reviewing, but actually tries to get inside the feeling of the movie.

    • Alice

      Actually I have seen the film and disagree with alot of Owens comments.

      First of all his whole view that you need dialogue to understand what the character is thinking etc. is wrong. By just watching Brandon’s facial expressions you can see what he is feeling, in one particular scene his look is so tortured, full of pain, self loathing that you want to be blind to miss it. A look can sometimes say a thousands words and this is used so effectively in Shame.

      McQueen to me used NYC to perfection and I think Owen also missed the point on the whole subway scence. Yes there was fliritng but the difference in meaning and what the outcome would be was very different to Brandon & the girl ( also laughing that the reviewer thinks married women don’t flirt at any point esp with a very handsome stranger). Again feeding into Brandon’s whole personality and addiction.

      I could say more but would be spoiling the films for others but all I can say is that though Owen is entitled to his opinion he seems to either have totally missed the point of the film, had an issue that the film made him use his brain or that he just wanted to hate it and is clutching at straws to find fault.

      • Brody

        Yeah, I hear you, just like I heard everyone else. You have all just about said the same thing, and continue to miss Owen’s biggest criticism: that Michael Fassbender’s character is sooooo tortured and pained about his “sex addiction” that he’s boring to watch. By portraying his character as this joyless sex robot that can barely help himself yet seems miserable by having all this sex (poor him) it misses the sleazy joy of random, uncontrolled sex that fuels most sex addiction. There’s almost no spontaneous aspect to his “depraved” behavior and it makes it very hard to see how that behavior controls him in the first place. All addiction, at least on some level, is somewhat enjoyable, and a crutch for difficult times that just creates more difficult times. This movie doesn’t accept that thesis and doesn’t really get compulsion.

        Also, it’s ironic that people accuse Owen of grasping at straws to not like the movie but keep repeating this one line from his review about married women hitting on Fassbender on the subway. To me that seems like grasping at straws to not like his review. He’s trying to illustrate a larger point about the movie just not feeling very true to life, and that maybe the director doesn’t fully get the world he’s set out to portray. That’s an easy enough criticism to believe, as a lot of indies feel populated by characters that don’t feel honest, but by him choosing to give a specific example he opens himself up to ridicule more than if he left it vague. So basically people are encouraging him to just generally criticize the hazy aspect that runs all through Shame, which wouldn’t help illustrate WHY the movie doesn’t feel fully lived in. Oh, and yeah, the majority of NYC subway riders wouldn’t look at each other if someone were getting murdered right next to them. Not saying they wouldn’t hit on Fassbender, just that it is an accurate point that NYC riders don’t often look at each other.

    • Paco

      I want more out of life than survival. I don’t wan’t to get sick. I don’t want to halsse through a liver transplant due to contracting Hepatitus. I don’t want to consume Ecoli for obvious reasons.When you stay at ANY hotel, you are doing the equivalent of licking the bathroom surfaces of the room(s) next door.I can think of more romantic ways to spend time.

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