The words “sex addict” are never uttered in Steve McQueen’s “Shame.”
This isn’t one of those social-problem films where a shrink swoops in to explain our hero’s condition and tell us how with therapy and the support of loved ones a sufferer’s life can be turned around.
We’re not even all that sure that Brandon Sullivan, the film’s protagonist, wants to turn his life around.
When we first meet Brandon (Brit actor Michael Fassbender) he’s lying in his bed after a sexual encounter. We hardly get a glimpse of his partner, who is dressing to leave. In fact, she doesn’t matter. Certainly not to Brandon.
As he gets up to walk to the bathroom we take him all in — stark naked from head to toe. t’s blatantly in-your-face, and so shocking that it sticks with us for the rest of the film. There’s no need for another moment of full frontal nudity…we’re still reeling from this introduction.
That’s a smart move by writer (with Abi Morgan) and director McQueen. Get the embarrassing stuff out of the way early so that we can concentrate on other matters.
We next see the well-dressed Michael riding a New York City subway to work. A lovely young woman (the camera notes the wedding ring on her hand) exchanges glances with him. When she gets off the train Brandon follows, but loses her in the rush hour crush.
At work in a fancy high-rise office (we never do figure out just what he does), Brandon ducks into the restroom for quick masturbatory break. He’s then informed by his boss (James Badge Dale) that his work computer has been taken by the IT guys because it’s jammed up with the worst sort of porn. Everyone thinks its the fault of Brandon’s recently-departed intern. We know better.
“Shame” is a bit like an all-sexual version of Dante’s inferno. We follow Brandon through his various circles of debauchery — hiring call girls, picking up a woman in a bar for quickie sex against the side of a building, pleasuring himself, poring over porn sites on his laptop.
Not once is there the slightest indication that Brandon actually enjoys sex. It’s something he has to do. Fassbender negotiates the story with an expression that suggests a migraine that just won’t go away.
His one chance to look beyond himself comes in the form of his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan), a rootless wanna-be lounge singer who shows up one day in Brandon’s apartment seeking shelter. He’s not thrilled to have his sexual style cramped by this interloper; he’s even less comfortable with Sissy’s self-pitying loneliness.
But Sissy’s presence does force Brandon to re-evaluate his life. He starts dating a woman from work (Nicole Beharie), tosses out his extensive collection of pornography and even chucks his laptop.
But he may be too far gone to turn things around. The usual rituals of courtship and seduction don't have the desired effect. He’s only potent when the sex is anonymous.
Finally Brandon is reduced to frequenting seedy bars, going through the motions of picking up women but actually hoping their male companions will him up. He figures that’s all he deserves.
“Shame” is one of those single-minded movies that concentrates so fully on its intentions that it almost seems artificial. Like Brandon, the world depicted here is chilly and sterile, almost mechanical. There’s no room for humor or the mind-numbing relief of the everyday.
It’s almost too much.
But McQueen (his only previous film was “Hunger,” about a hunger strike by IRA prisoners) has a killer sense of style and Fassbender (he was the young Magneto in the last “X-Men” movie and will be seen as Carl Jung in the upcoming “A Dangerous Method”) gives a compelling performance.
Brandon never talks about himself. He never announces his intentions. But so effective is this actor that he needs no dialogue. We simply watch his face and know what’s going on inside.