A powerful, cold story of obsession, Shame is the film that will propel Michael Fassbender into the big time as one of the great screen actors of his age.
A tale of decadent New York folk, Shame could be a page torn from the hedonistic ‘70s or ‘80s in its depiction of people whose lives are hopelessly out of control. Principally it focuses on Brandon, a high-flying yuppie who spends his every waking hour participating in, watching or thinking about sex.
Hookers, online porn, pick-ups, one-night stands, urgent roadside sex… he does it all. Constantly. His office PC is jammed full of downloaded filth. It’s a lifestyle he embraces but gets no fulfilment from.
Things go pear-shaped when his free-spirited boho sister, Sissy, (Carey Mulligan) turns up to re-connect and enjoy some family time. Suddenly Brandon’s ordered (and very secret) world is turned upside down and he doesn’t like it one bit.
This second collaboration between artist/filmmaker Steve McQueen and Fassbender follows their earlier hit, the Bobby Sands bio-drama Hunger. And given the difficulty many partnerships have in topping a first film hit, this one should have been risky.
It is, but not because it’s competing with its predecessor. Shame is brutal, raw and entirely plausible in examining the destructive forces that drive a handsome, intelligent and career-orientated man to the edge of society as a sex addict.
McQueen peels away his protagonist’s outer layers to reveal a deeply disturbed man. Fassbender depicts Brandon as deeply internalised, wounded, guarded and distrustful. He can neither cope with, nor accept, the normality of relationships. Hence his sister’s neediness is met with a cringe and a shrug. When she comes on to his boss and beds him in Brandon’s apartment, it’s the last straw.
McQueen presents Brandon as a man living outside society’s boundaries. He no longer recognises or accepts that his behaviour is aberrant; the presence of his sister – and her giving attitude to sex – is not something he can deal with. What is he running away from?
Shame peers into an uncomfortable subject with dispassion. Nakedness, full frontals and vigorous sex are here in abundance. But it is also fascinating. Both Fassbender and Mulligan give hugely brave performances in a movie that dares its audience to stay to the bitter end.