Film Review: Shame

This riveting, knockout punch of a film about a sex addict works the intersection of art, tone poem and social critique.

As Shame has wended its way through the festival circuit, it has arguably generated more heat and buzz than any other current film—and snagged a best actor award in Venice for its star, Michael Fassbender. Towards the end of the Toronto Film Festival, it was snapped up in a much-publicized acquisition by canny, marketing-savvy Fox Searchlight. Now it's been slapped with an NC-17—but what a shame if Shame failed to be widely viewed. This blistering movie marks both the arrival, after his debut Hunger, of Steve McQueen as a powerfully original filmmaker, and reconfirms the gifts and versatility of Irish-German actor Fassbender.

Shame focuses on handsome, well-turned-out Brandon (Fassbender), who is so obsessed with sex he has virtually no other life. He lives in a pricey, sterile apartment and reports to what seems a dullish but well-paying job in some office tower—yet in truth Brandon is wholly taken up with visits from prostitutes and Internet porn—that is, when he's not jerking off in the shower or seducing any female who crosses his path. The guy's priapic fixation is presented by McQueen as an illness, demonstrated by Brandon's inability to fuse sex with human connection. Nor is he big on family ties. When Sissy (Carey Mulligan), his unstable sister, busts into his pad for an unwelcome visit, Brandon is pushed beyond his comfort zone of detached horniness.

Shame lays its calling card on the table with a double full Monty of both Fassbender and Mulligan. Fassbender inhabits his body with an animal ease that makes him mesmerizing. At moments, the language pushes the envelope as well, but there's precious little, as plot and story are not really the point. Instead, video-artist-turned-filmmaker McQueen brilliantly works the intersection of painting, narrative, tone poem and social critique to get into the skin of a man who, in Norman Mailer's phrase, is a prisoner of sex.

The almost musical opening is a dazzling display of McQueen's art. Brandon sprawls naked from the waist up on blue sheets diagonally across the screen, staring into space in self-reproach, the score sorrowful and ominous. With his eyes alone, Fassbender captures self-loathing. Shifting fluidly in and out of sequence, McQueen follows Brandon padding naked around his apartment, to his commute on the subway—where he hits on a girl and stalks her in the station—to the apartment again, Bach on the record player—this all in one unbroken phrase.

In a set-piece in a club, Sissy delivers a super-slow rendition of “New York, New York,” which causes Brandon to mysteriously tear up and inspires his boss to hit on her. The scene has been touted as evidence of Mulligan's acting chops, but I found it overlong—though the song captures what one imagines were the hopes of both Brandon and Sissy at an earlier time. The turning point arrives when Brandon invites his co-worker (Nicole Behairie, excellent) to dinner, clumsily attempting “normal” conversation, not high on his usual agenda. After their disastrous sexual encounter, Brandon goes into a Dante-esque spiral through night-town that takes him from threesomes, to dives where he's punched out by a rival, to sitting bloodied on the street. Throughout this section, the score turns almost operatic, as if to convey a mini-twilight of the gods. And in fact, the Brit McQueen sees New York in especially dark hues: subway platforms resemble anterooms to purgatory; trains are purveyors of stupefied souls.

Some viewers, however, will take issue with McQueen's theme of sexual fixation as an illness inflamed by all the porn available on the Internet, objecting that this is the skewed view of an Anglo, puritanical culture. For me, Shame embraces a larger subject. Brandon channels a type of detached urban isolate—perhaps most prevalent in the financial sector—who by perpetually reducing others to a commodity has become a monster, not least to himself.