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'
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 I used the hopelessly outdated word yuppie on purpose to describe Fassbender’s quietly morose, rather desperate sex machine of a character, because there’s something else about Shame that’s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.
* * * *
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.
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