Near the beginning of the film Shame, the sex-addicted lead character Brandon is unable to focus in a company meeting; he’s clearly more interested in his attractive female co-worker than his boss’s presentation. But his boss’s words ring true: the selling point for consumers, he says, is the point at which “cynicism turns into awe.”
This statement is relevant not only for this fictitious company (presumably an ad agency, though we never find out for sure) but also for the entire film—and, unfortunately, most other films about addiction. All too often, as viewers of these films, we arrive cynical (“Here we go, another addiction movie”) but transition into a state of voyeurism. Seeing people at their very worst may cause us to wince or shield our eyes at times—but at other moments, we’re glued to the screen, mesmerized by the lascivious details. Films about addiction cater to this “awe” factor. This is especially true of Steve McQueen’s Shame; the film’s constant graphic sex scenes seem to exist solely for their shock value, rather than to probe deeper into the protagonist’s psyche. (We get the picture after one of these explicit scenes…no need to give us twelve.)
Don’t get us wrong, Shame does a fine job of capturing the pain, hopelessness, and all-consuming nature of addiction. Brandon appears to spend every waking hour either having sex or thinking about it, and he watches so much porn at the office that the company briefly confiscates his computer. He spends his nights between prostitutes, hookups, and online escapades. Ironically, the only time he’s unable to have sex is when he feels an emotional connection. Sex, for him, is about disconnecting and numbing his feelings—just like a drug.
One of the film’s failures is that it doesn’t explore why Brandon is compelled to numb his feelings in the first place. We gather that something must have happened in his childhood, particularly because his sister Sissy is equally disturbed (at one point she tells him, “We’re not bad people. We just come from a bad place.”) But that’s all we get: a few hints and no real examination. Consequently, Brandon himself seems as hollow as the sex he engages in. As New York Magazine’s David Edelstein puts it, his character is like a “specimen in a jar.”
In reality, addiction doesn’t happen “in a jar.” A person’s risk is influenced by myriad factors including genetics, gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, quality of life, and age. By failing to delve into the factors that led to Brandon’s predicament, Shame perpetuates the myth that addiction is merely a lifestyle choice—rather than a chronic, disabling condition.
In addition to an insufficient exploration of addiction’s causes, Shame feeds into the stereotype of “once an addict, always an addict.” In what strikes us as a clichéd representation of Brandon’s “rock bottom,” he gets beat up, hooks up at a gay bar, and has a threesome—all on the same night. In the final scene, he crouches on the street in heavy rain, sobbing while dramatic instrumental music plays in the background. That the film avoids a fairytale ending is commendable; addiction rarely has an easy resolution. On the other hand, Shame, like so many films about substance abuse, leaves viewers with the impression that addiction is a black hole from which there is no escape.
We know this is not really the case. There may not be a quick fix or a simple cure, but recovery is possible when people receive proper treatment and commit to managing their condition on an ongoing basis after treatment. After watching Shame, we had to wonder, what would happen if more filmmakers shed light on the recovery experience—rather than simply spotlighting the low points of addiction? How would viewers’ attitudes change if they saw a character like Brandon find the help he needed and get his life back on track? Filmmakers should do their part to reverse the cynicism of moviegoers—and the public at large—about the predictable addiction tragedy Shame represents. Maybe then, the “awe” factor would be less about shock, and more about hope.
Kate Schmier and Emma Edelman