Playing an X-Man of a very different kind, Michael Fassbender continues his year of formidable performances with a balls-out (quite literally, in many scenes) portrayal of a man who’s a raw nerve of anxiety, sadness, barely contained anger and yes, the eponymous Shame.
Fassbender plays Brandon, a fastidious New York professional who lives a carefully controlled existence (made apparent by his sparsely furnished and neat-as-a-pin apartment) while at the same time suffering from sexually compulsive behaviour. He’s a sex addict to be sure, but Brandon’s affliction isn’t quite so easy to label or write-off as a simple overindulgence of carnal desires.
Handsome Brandon easily charms women in bars; seduces luscious strangers on the subway with only his unflinchingly wanton gaze; surfs porn at work and then visits the men’s room to relieve his urges with joyless efficiency; and has regular unimpassioned encounters with prostitutes. None of which require him to peek out from behind the mask of cool detachment he’s constructed for himself. He’s so walled off from normal human relations that he’s lost the ability to connect to anyone…even though there’s nothing he wants more than to feel something for someone.
When Sissy (Carey Mulligan), Brandon’s blond pixie of a sister, whose daily phone calls he’s been dodging for months shows up unannounced at his apartment, Brandon is thrown into a spiral of confused resentment. Sissy is as colourful as Brandon is grey. Where he’s distant and dispassionate, she’s overly affectionate and emotional. Her very presence is both an affront and a comfort to Brandon causing him to spiral further into his addictions while at the same time taking terrified baby steps toward a normal relationship with a woman at his office.
It’s clear the two have a troubled relationship stemming from an undisclosed family trauma (the most we hear of it is when Sissy tearfully appeals to Brandon “We’re not bad people, we just come from a bad place”) that has caused them each to transform into battle-scarred individuals hell-bent on exorcising their demons through compulsive self-destruction. They’re both desperate for human connection but neither knows how to pursue it in a healthy way. Heck, they can barely properly reach out to one another for support or kindness.
Writer/Director Steve McQueen (Hunger) and his co-writer Abi Morgan have created a surprisingly lush and romantic-feeling look at the toxic loneliness of sex without genuine emotional attachment. This is a film that strives to make you believe in connection, affection and maybe even love; that not reaching out to other people leads to a barrenness of the soul.
This is never more evident than in one particularly stirring scene in a Manhattan nightclub where Brandon goes to see Sissy sing. Her mournful rendition of “New York, New York” – a version that changes the song’s tone from its usual jubilant hopefulness to a sad lament of what never came to be – affects Brandon and momentarily opens a gate into the persistent pain he’s feeling. It’s a rare moment of connection between him and his sister and Fassbender pulls it off with quiet grace.
In fact, Fassbender’s performance is the real strength of the film to the point that one wonders if such a bleak story would be as watchable without his magnetic charm and effortless skill at portraying Brandon as a predator you can’t help but root for.
While much has been written about the film’s explicit content and opening moments in which the audience is treated to “the full Fassbender,” the fact remains that this film is a stirring and unforgiving portrait of a human being in crisis: something everyone should be able to relate to on some level.
Shame is an elegant, art-tinged character study that that will hover in your psyche for a long time after you see it; whether or not that’s a good thing is up to you.