What, exactly, is the matter with Brandon (Michael Fassbender), the object of Steve McQueen’s bleak, hauntingly beautiful character study Shame? “Sex addiction” seems to be the term onto which most critics of the film have seized, but that term—at least in its typical parlance—doesn’t convey the grim depths to which Brandon’s painful and violent relationship with sex drives him. For Brandon, who has been blessed (or cursed) with jaw-dropping good looks, a high-paying corporate job, and a sleekly outfitted Manhattan apartment, sex is not a pleasure or even an empty diversion: it’s a compulsion and a torment. It should be noted, along these lines, that the film doesn’t shake its finger at sex itself, even casual sex or promiscuity. Rather, it shows us a kind of nightmare world known only to a damned few, where sex has become a source of suffering and where everything else is relegated to the blurry sidelines of one’s field of vision. Brandon tells a woman at a bar that he enjoys performing oral sex because “it’s just me and it,” and that phrase tells us much about the topography of Brandon’s mental landscape. A close-up during a rather hellish fuck session with two prostitutes reveals his classically handsome face transformed into an agonized rictus. (In a devastating set of scenes with a co-worker and potential girlfriend [Nicole Beharie], we see that Brandon is tentatively desirous of more meaningful relationships with women but incapable of managing them, for reasons the film only hints at.)
This is McQueen’s second feature film after 2008’s Hunger, about the Irish prison riots of the 1980s. A former visual artist, McQueen’s approach to filmmaking is unconventional and striking; while less formally audacious than Hunger, Shame is boldly directed and edited (as in Hunger, McQueen makes masterful use of long takes). McQueen is somewhat less successful as a storyteller: for every ten virtuoso shots in the film there are one or two that feel clunky and plot-driven by comparison. Shame seems to be a case of a gifted non-narrative director trying to work in a narrative mode and not failing, exactly, but perhaps stumbling a bit. Nevertheless, McQueen’s hand is remarkably steady for much of the film, and his handling of atmosphere and style is staggering; the film feels lean, taut; the kind of narrative padding that we’re used to seeing in movies has been almost entirely cut away.
As Brandon, Fassbender gives his most impressive performance to date. He’s a dynamite actor—as good at physical scenes as he is with dialogue (and Shame demands a lot from him in both departments). His scenes with Beharie are particularly riveting, but he’s also well matched by Carey Mulligan, playing his needy, emotionally unstable vagabond sister. This is Mulligan's best role since An Education, and she reminds us that she’s one of our most talented young actors. In her scenes with Fassbender—some of which are tender, others of which are raw, nearly all of which are achieved in single takes—we’re watching two expert performers working at the top of their game.