A sex addict's suicide mission
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, Dec 02, 2011
In France, they call an orgasm "the little death." In "Shame," Steve McQueen's mournful portrait of an addict hitting rock bottom, Michael Fassbender plays a man committing suicide by accumulation, seeking self-annihilation through the compulsive pursuit of sex. But what movies so often relegate to the margins of pornography or sophomoric titillation is radically redefined here, stripped of its erotic charge and depicted as a numbing erasure of life and emotion.
If that makes "Shame" sound joyless, that's because it is. In fact, fans of Fassbender's yummy performances in this year's "Jane Eyre" and "X-Men: First Class" should be forewarned that, although we see the handsome Irish actor in the altogether, "Shame" is strangely un-sexy.
As successful New Yorker Brandon, Fassbender - who last worked with McQueen playing Bobby Sands in the remarkable 2008 film "Hunger" - spends a great deal of time staring moodily, whether at a potential conquest on the subway or at porn on his computer, where he sits alone at night drinking beer and eating takeout. In "Shame," New York isn't the glittering free-for-all of snares and seductions as much as a hive of lonely, hidden isolates. Brandon may be able to make it anywhere, but even when he's with another person - usually a one-night stand or a prostitute - he's alone.
That changes with the sudden arrival of his little sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), a blonde live wire whose hospital bracelet indicates that all is not entirely well with her either. Sissy upsets Brandon's metronomically choreographed rituals, which, it becomes clear, emanate from a wound deep in their shared past. "We're not bad people," Sissy says to him at one point. "We just come from a bad place."
That's as specific as it gets in "Shame," which leaves motivations and back stories up to the viewer's imagination and focuses with unblinking frankness on the depths of Brandon's most self-loathing behavior and his increasingly frantic attempts to hide it. When a colleague tells him he really "nailed it" in a meeting, the double-entendre carries a sharp zap of recognition; the closest he gets to revealing authentic emotion is when he begins to cry listening to Sissy sing a lugubrious version of "New York, New York," which Mulligan transforms into a ballad of loneliness and longing in one of the film's most astonishing set pieces. ("Shame" was beautifully filmed by cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, who portrays Brandon's worlds as a soulless backdrop of sleek, antiseptic surfaces.)
As in "Hunger," McQueen favors long, uninterrupted takes, which gives Fassbender's extraordinary gift for expression free rein. In any other actor's hands, Brandon would be an impossibly repellent character, but Fassbender infuses him with enough sympathy and vulnerability to make him not just watchable but unforgettable. This becomes all the more necessary in the film's unsettling, graphically explicit climax, when Brandon seeks to purge his demons in a sequence that resembles a sickening drunken binge, leaving the audience enervated and vicariously hungover.
Whether "Shame" is worth the gloomy descent into Manhattan's scurviest recesses depends on the viewer's tolerance for movies that offer no grand narrative or explicit meaning and instead simply provide a snapshot character study for audiences to ponder on their own. There's no doubt that "Shame" burrows into one's consciousness and stays there, a brooding reminder that most of us are, in some way or another, waging invisible psychic battles. McQueen ends his portrait where he began it, but with a question, leaving it up to viewers to decide whether Brandon has won the fight or is still on his suicide mission, death by little death.
Contains explicit sexual content.