The short and spoiler free version:
Rating: 4 (out of 5)
Overall: Slow, intense, atmospheric.
Best for: People that like those kind of films, dark and gritty slice of life and hard topics.
Avoid if: It’s graphic, if that bothers. Also not for those who want a lot of conversation or faster paced movies with fulfilling endings.
Summary: ‘In New York City, Brandon’s carefully cultivated private life — which allows him to indulge his sexual addiction — is disrupted when his sister arrives unannounced for an indefinite stay.’ -IMDB
The slightly longer version (spoilers after the picture):
Hmmm. Okay. I’ve never really watched any film quite like that before, so I feel unsure how to rate it. It’s definitely not a film for everybody.
It’s a slow film. Very slow, especially at the start, and it doesn’t get much faster. You spend roughly the first 30 seconds watching him breathe, and I’m not joking. It’s also very quiet, save for a recurring theme of soft classical background music – a deliberate juxtaposition. There’s only a little dialogue compared to other films. It’s a film for the empath, mainly due to the silence. There’s no dramatic action save for sexually explicit scenes, tensely suppressed angst, one relatively quiet fight and one last dramatic moment near the ending. Your value of the film hangs entirely on your empathy/emotional engagement with Brandon. Who, in fairness, is acted absolutely incredibly by Michael Fassbender.
I wouldn’t call it an erotic film, despite the subject matter. That would imply some kind of enjoyment, inviting the viewer to be excited. This plays to its title. It’s an exploration of an addiction, guilt, and losing oneself. It’s shot in muted, dull colours for a lot of the film – ‘Grey’ could be an equally appropriate title.
Even the scenes in brighter colours, such as the date with his coworker, have a grey emotional tone, a real and overhanging bleakness. Joking aside, the cinematography is very in theme with the film. It lends atmosphere and gives plenty of room for the acting to sing. There is one particular long continuous shot where Brandon goes for a jog, classical music playing on his headphones, and it’s quite possibly the most beautiful shot in the entire movie.
It’s also one of few films to contain full frontal male nudity. This appears very early on and is surprisingly dispassionate. The film then quietly leads us into Brandon’s life of sex addiction, piece by piece, a process that continues gradually so that we are still discovering further levels to his addiction even up towards the end of the film. I think this was a brilliant choice – the lack of sensory overload especially at the start despite the nature of his obsession reflects Brandon’s own blank expression watching porn – his is not a fulfilling life, obviously quite the opposite. There is no contradiction to that here in the directing.
His sister, ‘Sissy’, first appears on screen naked (although not in a sexual context), and because of preceeding knowledge of Brandon I wondered for a moment if they were going to play the line of incest. I think this is certainly deliberate as a suggestion, as a mind as preoccupied as Brandon’s is hardly going to deny itself the assessment, no matter how shameful. He transfers this into a protectiveness of her sexuality and I believe a jealousy of her sexual freedom (he has a lot of sex, but he is trapped by it). You see that he uses sex as an escape from his problems even as it causes them.
Two foreshadowing scenes take place around quite possibly the most miserable train in existence. Think of Thomas the Tank Engine. It’s the absolute polar opposite of that. The first foreshadowing is in the instability of Sissy, and the other is at the very start of the film and circles around to its conclusion.
It’s a subtle and neat mirror scene, though you’ll need a half-decent memory to appreciate it. Brandon and the woman have switched places – she has gained confidence in her want of something shameful, the very confidence that he has now lost.
Ultimately the only thing that lets it down is the very thing that is its signature. The pacing and mood. Whilst I understand the artistic choice I feel the emotional effect could have been enhanced with greater variation in the film. A matter of enhancing by contrast. It is debatable whether there are any great deviations from the main ‘sad, atmospheric’ mood of the piece. For its length I feel that either the variation should have higher peaks and troughs, or the length itself should shorten to become a more succinct and powerful character study.
But overall, it’s a striking and amazingly acted film. And one I am definitely not ashamed to say I have watched.