Director Steve McQueen reunites with actor Michael Fassbender for his sophomore feature “Shame,” a grim story of a closeted sex addict whose carefully controlled private life is thrown off balance with the arrival of his wayward younger sister.
Brandon (Fassbender) is a 30-something bachelor living in New York City who frequently engages in casual sex, pornography and masturbation; anything, really, that can get him off, as it immediately becomes apparent that he needs it just to feel something. A successful business executive by day, Brandon is almost Patrick Bateman-like in his meticulous privacy and lack of affect. The title reflects the vicious cycle he puts himself through wherein, unable to connect with others on a personal level, he juggles a myriad of physical relationships to try to fill the void inside.
But when Sissy (Carey Mulligan), an aspiring singer and full-time drifter, shows up unexpectedly on his doorstep with nowhere else to stay, Brandon becomes even more withdrawn. His sister’s presence makes Brandon more self-conscious of his perverse nature, and her repeated attempts to strengthen their sibling bond only push him further into the city’s underbelly in order to get the satisfaction he craves. Neither sibling can afford to continue living as they have been, and it is only a matter of time before tensions reach a boiling point.
Fassbender gives a restrained and almost-menacing performance as Brandon, a man who seems to act on his moment-to-moment thoughts rather than responding to normal psychosocial stimuli. Mulligan, through roles like Sissy, is growing up and breaking out of the girlish mold that first put her on the map with the success of 2009’s “An Education,” for which she earned an Oscar nomination. But not only does “Shame” showcase Mulligan’s acting chops, her character’s haunting rendition of “New York, New York” at a nightclub is also one of the film’s most memorable scenes.
Just like his debut feature “Hunger” (2008), “Shame” brings out McQueen’s uncanny ability to speak volumes without words, no doubt a product of his background as an artist dealing in experimental film. Relying on powerful imagery and brilliantly crafted montages, the director establishes Brandon’s New York City as one that is sparse and cold, a marked departure from the urban pinnacle that usually graces the screen.
The minimalist aesthetic carries over into the depictions of the sexual act, giving off a raw carnality sans passion and emotion. Sex is not sexy for Brandon; there are only his primal needs and desires that need be satiated. Fassbender boldly bares all for the role, a refreshing change from Hollywood’s strong tendency toward female objectification. This is not to say that Brandon’s conquests are spared by the camera, but rather that McQueen treats his actors more fairly across gender lines than other directors (I’m talking to you, Michael Bay).
While “Shame” has enjoyed positive critical responses on the festival circuit, it remains to be seen how its decidedly NC-17 material will influence a distribution deal in America, where extreme violence is much more tolerated than extreme sexuality. One can only hope that McQueen will not be asked to compromise his artistic vision, and if the film finds its way to a theater near you, I would highly encourage giving it a chance.