In a gold-toned, anonymous hotel room, a man stands with his back to the camera, looking out at the empty night-roads of LA. His white satin jacket, embroidered with a gold scorpion, barely moves as he explains into a cell phone how he works. It's a minimum of words, and the call is short; as he talks, the scorpion looks as if it's breathing.
In a rumpled bed with blue sheets, a naked man lies face up. The camera remains fixed above him as he stares straight ahead, his face a mask of resignation; every so often, self-loathing flickers over his face. Finally, he shoves the sheets away and gets up; the camera lingers, looking at the mess that's been made of the bed, and the indent of a second body, long gone.
These respective opening shots of Drive, a film neon about a stuntman-cum-getaway driver, and Shame, a study of sex addiction, share more than might be immediately apparent. Both protagonists fulfill some deep, unexamined need in a dangerous and ultimately destructive way (and both are masterfully acted). In both films, words come at a premium; the short bursts of dialogue are effective, but less revelatory than the more eloquent silences. (Oddly, both protagonists have their most emotionally intimate relationships with Carey Mulligan, this year's go-to girl for playing modern damsels in distress.)
And for both films, the character study of both protagonists is driven not by spoken language, but instead through the design and cinematography of the worlds that contain them.
In the super-saturated Drive, Ryan Gosling's nameless Driver inhabits the frame in two primary ways. One is through lingering close-ups and mid-shots, in which Gosling skillfully conveys turmoil with microexpressions, and in which the other characters move in and out of a painfully solitary orbit. When he takes young mother Irene and her son Benicio on a joyride, the shot captures the young couple in the front seat, and the quietly skeptical son framed in the rearview mirror, remote and separated, watching as Driver and Irene watch each other. (However, the film makes clear the relationship won't last; after he brings them home, he and Irene stand in her apartment, close enough to touch but sharply separated—the wall behind him is green; the wall behind her is red.)
The other framing motif, often just as evocative, is training the camera on him from behind as he drives the empty streets at night, bathed in a neon glow and listening to music (bright, synthy pop that stands in stark contrast to the muted soundscape of the rest of this world). It's as evocative a shot as any of his close-ups, as the car is part and parcel of his identity; early in the film, he comes home to an empty apartment, and the camera pauses to watch him immediately retreat back to the relative welcome of the car and the open road. (The other cinematic advantage of shots from behind is the opportunities they provide to film the striking and already iconic scorpion jacket, which is as much a character as Driver himself; it begins the film an icy white and ends up dirty, distended, and coated with blood, and is often lit as if the scorpion itself is alive.)
There are other striking shots in Drive, all carefully composed to heighten tension as Driver's involvement with Irene and her husband's attempts to escape underworld involvement escalate into tragedy (the bursts of violence are both stylized and brutal, and the chase scenes maintain remarkable tension). However, the most powerful shots are of Driver behind the wheel, a sliver of his face visible in the rearview mirror, the rest of him facing the open, empty road.
Shame, filmed in New York City, has none of the same aesthetic touchstones as Drive. The palette is often painfully desaturated, and here it's claustrophobia, not emptiness, that heightens the protagonist's solitude.
Brandon is a businessman with an addiction to sex; his life cycles through the thrill of seeking it and the fear of losing it. The underwater palette of blues and grays is broken by warm color when Brandon is on the hunt—when he flirts wordlessly with a redhead in a plum scarf, and when he walks beside a promising date who's wearing a yellow scarf, the pops of color are telling. The sex scenes themselves, however, return to the same desaturated, bleak colors—devoid of any life or animation. (This sounds like more of a condemnation than it is—for a movie with so much sex, it's carefully never played for prurience, and Fassbender's masterful performance keeps the character from ever tipping over that line.)
This color begins to bleed further into his life when his sister Cissy comes to stay. Their relationship is complicated (the movie positions her as his de facto leading lady, and though there is no incest, there is certainly the overwhelming feeling that their shared past is less than sterling), and when they share a frame, his perfectly groomed and icy palette is a stark contrast to her growing-out dye job, floppy red hats, and secondhand leopard-print coats. In such a restrained frame, the colors are invasive. (It isn't the only contrast, either—her musical leitmotif is lounge music, his, a muted, tragic orchestra, and as their relationship intensifies, their signature music overlaps.)
But there's nowhere he can escape it, either; Brandon's world is, literally and figuratively, a world of glass, and there's nowhere in the frame he can hide. His office, the restaurants he frequents, one of his assignations—all of them are glass-walled and public. In a particularly telling progression, he goes from his open office to a nightclub (Cissy sings under golden lights, while he's framed by the gleaming, empty window behind him) to his apartment, where Cissy's noises with a gentleman caller push him back against his wall-to-wall windows, and eventually drive him out onto the street. Though the run does little to help him outrun his demons (a blue cast follows him), the long tracking shot of Brandon running through a near-deserted city is still visually cathartic; the movement is a respite from a camera that's often fixed for long stretches and highlights the claustrophobia of his addiction.
It would have been easy in either of these movies for the camera's gaze to default, even by accident, to the expected, and undermine the script and the actors—easy for Drive to be a glorified car-chase movie, for Shame to be a glorified skin flick. (Rare is the action movie in which violence is so realistically disturbing; rarer still is the movie about sex that manages to avoid passing judgment on women.) Instead, in each movie the camera is a seamless and integral narrative device. More than just the use of color and framing, the camera becomes the superego of the man it follows, able both to understand and analyze its subject, and the results are evocative and telling, from the very first shot.