Brandon (Michael Fassbender) is a sex addict, working in the corporate world doing… We never know quite what. When his freewheeling sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) comes to town, it is not long before Brandon’s carefully ordered world begins to crumble, setting him and his sister on a course to distruction.
First things first, Shame is not a movie to go and see with your mum. One of the very first shots is a full frontal nude of Michael Fassbender, and that is only for starters. The reason director Steve McQueen gets away with this, however, is that this is not the most sexually explicit aspect of the film. Brandon constantly gazes on people – women for the most part – in an unflinching manner, which suggests that he is doing far more than undressing them with his eyes. These electric gazes, and the audience’s gaze on Brandon, feel far more invasive and explicit than anything the character could do with his body.
This is a brave film for Michael Fassbender to make. Yes, his performance is outstanding and could well garner him awards nominations across the board, but it is far from a glamorous role. Brandon is a character that has little to no motivation, apart from his dead end job that was, potentially, more satisfying before the global economic crash. Could this be the reason that this man has turned to physical thrills, to make up for his lacklustre professional life? On the outside, Brandon is a professional man, but scratch the surface and Brandon is a man who has a gigantic stash of porn hidden in his beige apartment, uses prostitutes and follows a woman off a subway because he is so entranced by her.
We learn little about Brandon, until his sister Sissy comes to town. She is as damaged as he, but while he hides his emotions like his porn, her emotional wounds are laid bare for all to see. Sissy is a singer, and performs New York, New York at an upscale var. Brandon watches her as she slows the song down; her performance betraying how lost she feels in the big city. This is not a celebratory song all of a sudden; it is one of heartbreak and loss. In watching her, Brandon is as lost as she is. This is one of the most revealing moments in terms of his character. Carey Mulligan finally breaks free from the nice-girl characters she has been playing of late, and even seems to have a little fun with Sissy, even though she is a broken and tragic character.
McQueen and cinematographer Sean Bobbit have created a film that almost appears to just happen in front of the camera; as though a wide scale version of Big Brother. The camera does not intrude on the action, rather it forms it’s shot and allows the action to happen, be it on or off camera. The cuts are minimal and the camera mostly static. The exception being the long tracking shot of Brandon jogging, which is as fluid but rigid as the film itself.
The audience never knows which direction Brandon is going to move in; he hooks up with a woman his friend was hitting on, but then allows a woman to leave a date without even as much as a goodnight kiss. When he hears, through the walls of his own apartment, his sister having sex with his boss there is a very real moment where he may just go and join them. When he talks with his sister there is a very real feeling that he may try and seduce her, such is the intensity with which he looks at her.
Shame is an intense and dark film. This is not a film about sex, but what drives a person to addiction. The ‘shame’ of the title is not addiction, it is not sex, it is what happened to both Brandon and Sissy to drive them so far into dysfunction. Shame is not a film about dialogue; everything the audience needs to know is on the character’s faces. While this is an artistically assembled movie, it is less formal than McQueen’s previous film Hunger; it is fluid yet static, but never easy to watch. Michael Fassbender pulls out all the stops in a film about addiction, isolation and the destructive dependence of people on one another.