This review contains an open discussion of the film; spoilers follow.
Summary taken from IMDB: In New York City, Brandon’s carefully cultivated private life — which allows him to indulge his sexual addiction — is disrupted when his sister Cissy arrives unannounced for an indefinite stay.
There is a shot in director Steve McQueen’s second feature film that rivals any other from this year. A long montage depicting a ménage à trois weaves through many a suffocating flesh-filled close-up, eventually landing on our protagonist’s face. Michael Fassbender looks transformed here; his face is hauntingly gaunt and primal. There is no pleasure to be found in his expression; all we see is someone making a desperate life-or-death climb to the finish line. The shot took me to another place entirely; it showed me who this man is and the result gutted me.
There are undeniably only so many layers to Shame, which depicts the life of an affluent sex addict living in New York City. But with a subject matter that has rarely been explored with any degree of seriousness, not much in this case is more than enough. Those basic points are made with the degree of lucidity that McQueen provides. Along with the two performances by Fassbender and Mulligan, it is hard to argue against its somewhat rudimentary vision.
Brandon’s fixes and the likely meaningless chunks of time in-between are experienced with an equal perfunctory indifference. His sexual encounters feel more like a rush to get his satisfaction as opposed to something he entirely revels in. Brandon’s sexual exploits come at him in a multitude of ways, and he has established a routine methodical means that include but are not limited to hookers, web cam models, print and online pornography, a “filthy hard drive” at work and casual hookups. The Internet age allows him a bevy of backup options.
There are a lot of scenes that establish expected territory. Brandon does not comprehend the idea of marriage. Climaxing with the one woman he may have feelings for becomes impossible once intimacy rears its ugly head. His boss, whom Brandon tolerates, spends all night trying to hook up with a woman, only for Brandon to be the one that scores. He does not have one sustainable human connection, and that seems to suit him as long as he has the temporary and empty connections that provide his fix.
Shame really starts to resonate when Brandon’s life begins to unravel due to the presence of his clinging dependent waif of a little sister. Sissy (Carey Mulligan in an unhinged and unpredictable performance that ignites the screen) is an unwelcome presence in his life, but after ignoring her calls only to find her showering in his apartment one night, it is clear she plans on staying a while.
A lot can be said about Brandon and Sissy based on the way they share physical space and interact with one another. Brandon’s desired dismissal of her goes beyond the energy it takes to care for her; the past, whatever that may be, looms over the two in every scene. Sissy wants to make due on the connection they have as siblings who have weathered through a lot together, but Brandon wants none of it. The two are damaged and evidently defined by their likely tumultuous past. Sissy seeks consolation, but Brandon seeks the opposite from her. Having Sissy in his life is unquestionably too hard for him.
Some are taking issue with the film’s lack of backstory, but the film supplies so much rich substance in the scenes between the two, that it never becomes a question to feel cheated by its lack of explanation. In fact, the pivotal line as said by Sissy, “We’re not bad people; we just come from a bad place” provides all the confirmation and backstory people are finding absent. It is an explicit statement of past trauma that discards any purported hesitation we have towards throwing the word abuse around when discussing the source of their behavior. Whatever else that piece of dialogue is, it is far from ambiguous. It provides an orthodox cause-and-effect answer, and I am still trying to decide if I feel the line should have been in the film. Because it is not just the line; its placement and Sissy’s emotional state in that moment of audio provide the climax (no pun intended) of the film. It says a lot that the line is heard on top of Brandon’s unsettling self-destructive excursion; perhaps too much.
Sissy’s arrival does two things; first, it takes Brandon’s mind back to a place in time he does not want to be. Secondly, it takes away his privacy and thus, his ability to get off in the comfort of his own home. The combination of the two is the catalyst for Brandon coming apart at the seams in the film’s latter half. Shame’s purpose as a character study lies in Brandon’s eventual realization of how badly he needs sex once it is gradually deprived of him.
Brandon’s journey is bookended by two segments that set his exploits to moody tormented cello complete with the tick-tock passage of time. The first sequence opens the film and introduces Brandon as a walking calamity. His routine of traveling from high to high has been long established by the time we meet him. All that self-loathing is there but its familiarity allows it to barely register as the score hovers around unbeknownst to him.
By the time the second sequence of orchestral gloom comes along, Brandon has a heightened awareness of how desperate he has become. He cannot masturbate or interact with his laptop at home because of Sissy’s presence. Her being in his apartment is problematic for any number of reasons. He is indirectly called out on his hard drive stash by his boss. He is impotent with Marianne (Nicole Beharie), a woman he is legitimately drawn towards, throwing his sense of self into disarray. The routine that masked his crippling addiction has fallen out from under him; those strings are ringing louder and louder in his ear. Thus begins his bender where the hunt for release becomes fraught with increasingly disconcerting encounters. The notes follow him as he almost gleefully walks into a confrontation with the boyfriend of a woman he tries to pick up using graphically descriptive means, not to mention his hands. His lack of options leads him into an underground gay nightclub; his search for an outlet wrenchingly complete.
Watching Michael Fassbender dissolve right in front of us is quite the spectacle. This has been the year of Fassbender and we are all the better for it. He and Steve McQueen have established a working collaborative relationship, producing results that heighten the material through their partnership. Brandon is gritting through life, only out for his own base needs. The people he interacts with are meaningless, especially including the ones he sleeps with. Fassbender is an explosive force to be reckoned with as he completely gives himself over to the camera for observational purposes.
Mulligan is no less impressive introducing unbridled frenzy as Sissy who is much farther along the path to futility than Brandon is, or rather, is farther along the path precisely because she is aware of it. She deserves as much praise as her costar, hurtling off the screen with abandon. She takes a character that is mainly a plot device (the only similarity to her turn in Drive), but makes so much more of this role than the former because her character in Shame moves beyond her functional purpose. Props must go to Nicole Beharie as well for her lovely supporting turn; I cared about her immediately and was frustrated by my inability to tell her to abandon ship.
Steve McQueen has the confidence of a veteran; his vision is clear and he presents it with poise. Between this and Hunger, it is obvious that long takes are his strong suit. One more film from him and they will be a fully-fledged trademark. He risks distracting the audience but he does not; his lengthy observations make us more attentive, more aware of the physical space and of body language. They allow us to get a fuller sense of the performances and they enhance the notion of the audience observing Brandon through the glass-plate walls; he is a test subject. McQueen distances us with the sterile environment and cagey glass. He puts us up close when it counts, and when it becomes important to unsettle the audience. His methods set the methodical pace of a representative case study.
McQueen and cowriter Abi Morgan use Brandon as a representative for sex addiction, which may be disappointing to some and it is understandable. The decision forces Brandon into a broadly stroked corner. But McQueen knows what he wants to do and he does it with aplomb using Fassbender as his riveting translator. The director balances Brandon as cornerstone example with a sibling dynamic ripe for rich exploration. Brandon’s surprisingly conventional, but no less powerful, arc towards disintegration is tinted with more hope than one would expect. Shame is arresting cinema that loyally follows its self-loathing protagonist wherever he may go.