Friday, December 2, 2011

Not So Jolly: Cinematic Carnality and Corruption

Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan in Shame

Profoundly damaged men are the focus of two new films with one-word titles and bleaker-than-bleak outlooks. Just in time for the holidays! In Shame, the troubled New York City protagonist is Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender), addicted to anonymous and increasingly rough, grim sex. The central character in Rampart, Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson), is a longtime Los Angeles cop whose lies, brutality and arrogance have begun to erode his very being. Joy to the world!

While both movies are hard to watch, Shame provides some measure of compassion for the handsome Brandon as he navigates between his upscale office job and a secret life of compulsive seduction, masturbation, hookers and porn. Director Steve McQueen, who co-wrote the screenplay with Abi Morgan and gives the dire proceedings a deceptively stylish look, does not provide any examination of what early experiences might have dragged a person into such self-destructive lower depths.

Michael Fassbender as Brandon in Shame
Leave that sort of analysis to Fassbender’s role as Carl Jung executing an intellectual pas de deux with Viggo Mortensen’s Sigmund Freud in A Dangerous Method, the intense David Cronenberg drama also opening during this celebratory season.  Suffice it to say that the latter shrink’s view of sex as the primary motivational force for humanity has been fully embraced by Brandon, as evident in every scene featuring his full-frontal nudity.

This bravely naked portrayal is matched by Carey Mulligan in a wrenching turn as Brandon’s estranged younger sister, Sissy. After trying to avoid a reunion, he relents and agrees to let her crash in his austere apartment for a few days. An aspiring singer, she is a handful, alternately brash and needy. Although they clearly must have shared some childhood nightmare while growing up in New Jersey (an unspoken back-story, without any fuhgeddaboutit accents from the Irish Fassbender and British Mulligan), his emotionless facade is in stark contrast to her tremulous vulnerability.

But when Sissy is in a nightclub performing a slow, almost sorrowful rendition of the normally peppy “New York, New York,” a tear wells up in Brandon’s eye. Something else entirely wells up in his married boss David (James Badge Dale), a relentless womanizer with crude flirtation skills compared to the smooth appeal radiated by his employee. The siblings soon start spiralling out of control.

Brandon attempts to alter his fate by dating a comely colleague named Marianne (Nicole Beharie) but is unable to consummate the relationship. Only frenzied hookups with strangers will satisfy, it seems. Sissy, meanwhile, has debased herself by sleeping with David and is feeling suicidal. Fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la!

Woody Harrelson plays an LAPD rogue cop in Rampart

Anyone bummed out by Shame may regard it as a light comedy after seeing Rampart, a sort of Bad Lieutenant for the 21st century. That gritty 1992 release by Abel Ferrara (not to be confused with Werner Herzog’s ridiculous recent update set in New Orleans) chronicled the downward descent of a Manhattan police officer played by Harvey Keitel prone to gambling, ingesting narcotics and frequenting prostitutes, among other crimes. The current saga from director Oren Moverman (his 2009 indie The Messenger also starred Harrelson) boasts a script co-written with novelist James Ellroy (L.A. Confidential), a master at inventing devils to populate the City of Angels. Jumpy camerawork adds to the sense of dislocation. More a profile of a nauseating individual than noir, Rampart takes place on the threshold of the new millennium in 1999, when law enforcement was plagued by a massive scandal. The renegade anti-gang unit of the LAPD’s Rampart division had gotten involved in beating, shooting, framing and shaking down innocent citizens, as well as tampering with evidence and dealing dope.

 Ben Foster and Woody Harrelson in Rampart
Against this backdrop, Harrelson’s Brown is merely interested in booze, broads and illegal prescriptions drugs. He’s a racist, misogynist and misanthrope, to boot. On the plus side, the guy has spawned two lovely daughters with two former spouses (Anne Heche and Cynthia Nixon), sister wives who are genuine sisters now living with him as an unhappy family in a Big Love-type compound –  without the Mormon context. None of them like him much anymore and, frankly, it’s difficult to understand why they ever did.

With his behavior under scrutiny by an investigator (Ice Cube) and department officials (Steve Buscemi and Sigourney Weaver) worried that he’ll further complicate the Rampart controversy, Dave is more paranoid than ever. He doesn’t know whether to trust a pretty defense attorney (Robin Wright) who winds up in his bed, an old mentor (Ned Beatty) or the homeless vet in a wheelchair (Ben Foster) serving as one of his informants.  

Harrelson got an Oscar nomination for Moverman’s The Messenger, but Foster – a Rampart producer –  was equally effective in that tale of soldiers tasked with telling civilians their loved ones have been killed in overseas wars. From the Shame team, McQueen and Fassbender also worked together previously: Hunger (2008), about IRA operative Bobby Sands as a political prisoner starving himself to death. Put all these fine talents in the same room and testosterone would mingle (only symbolically, of course) with blood, sweat, rage and sperm. Not exactly God rest ye merry gentlemen.

Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

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