Steve McQueen’s second directorial outing after the immensely powerful Hunger (2008) is a raw and unflinching portrayal of addiction and loneliness. Michael Fassbender gives an outstanding performance as the cold and distant Brandon, a man whose existence is built around a well ordered routine and the need for sexual contact. He looks withdrawn, tired and pale throughout the film, a man haunted by his burning need for sordid thrills despite his apparent inability to gain pleasure from them.
Brandon is to all intents and purposes a fully-functioning and normal member of society. He commutes to work at his unspecified job, socialises with work colleagues and lives in a trendy modern apartment. His burden is very much a secret one which adds to his growing sense of isolation. Brandon watches pornography, pays for hookers and masturbates on a seemingly never-ending loop to the point where it’s all just part of his daily routine. That carefully managed routine is shattered when his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) turns up in town needing a place to stay.
Sissy is chirpy and playful and seems in direct contrast to sullen Brandon. Yet she also shows a great fragility beneath the surface and turns to Brandon for brotherly affection and help, maybe even protection. Such is his remoteness however, he simply has no affection to give and at one stage he even implores her to “stop playing the victim”.
Sissy does however convince her brother to come and see her sing at a local lounge bar. Brandon grudgingly brings along his sleazy boss David, a married man who tries tragically to emulate Brandon’s single life who we see earlier trying in vain to pick up girls in bars. In one of the stand-out scenes in the whole movie, McQueen lets his camera linger on Mulligan’s face as she sings a slowed down version of ‘New York, New York’ that is dripping in longing and melancholy. The camera briefly cuts to Brandon who allows himself a brief moment of emotion which hints at a shared pain in the two sibling’s past.
Sissy comes over to the table and she and David begin to flirt, much to Brandon’s obvious chagrin. The trio share a decidedly uncomfortable taxi ride back to Brandon’s apartment and while David and Sissy sleep together, Brandon, steely-eyed and frustrated, leaves the apartment for a jog through the cold and desolate streets.
Brandon does attempt something approaching a normal human relationship with co-worker Marianne. The two share a dinner date and it seems to go well if a little awkwardly as Brandon struggles to maintain a veneer of normality. His inability to share meaningful physical contact with someone he actually cares about ultimately becomes an issue though and Brandon’s need for taboo and depraved sexual gratification becomes more prominent. As Sissy’s frailty becomes more and more prominent and Brandon’s self-loathing begins to take over, he starts to realise his affliction is getting out of hand.
Fassbender is proving himself to be one of the finest actors working today and he is truly outstanding here as a man struggling with an addiction and keeping his sordid private life a secret. The opening scene where he flirts with a married woman on a train only to turn the situation into something all the more unsettling and creepy is truly superb. Fassbender fully conveys the necessary remoteness and portrays Brandon not as a dangerous sexual predator but a regular guy with a personal problem, the root causes of which we are never privy to. Likewise, Carey Mulligan is pitch perfect as Sissy, a seemingly bright and cheerful girl who longs for her brother’s affection and who herself is dealing with an unspecified inner pain. Mulligan captures the fragility of the character perfectly and it is her arrival which proves disastrous to Brandon’s carefully honed secret life. A telling scene sees Sissy burst in on Brandon pleasuring himself in the bathroom. While she finds it hilarious and seeks to laugh it off, he storms out of the bathroom in a rage, partly through embarrassment and partly out of the misplaced anger which he has towards himself.
Great credit must be given to McQueen for creating such a powerful piece of cinema. He indulges in plenty of long takes, which despite often proving uncomfortable to watch, allows the viewer to gain a real sense of the two lead characters’ conflicting emotions. The aforementioned ‘New York, New York’ scene being a prime example of this. The director paints a portrait of a sex addict, not in a lurid or titillating way, but in a manner which highlights the hollow and empty lifestyle it can often lead to. The desolated streets, sterile apartment buildings and bland office spaces heighten the sense of emptiness in Brandon’s life. The director doesn’t really offer any answers, be it a cause or a cure, moreover he is simply showing a snapshot of a sufferer and allows the audience to experience what he experiences.
It’s a bold and provocative movie with two truly bravura performances at its centre. Shame is a compelling and yet, at the same time, very difficult film to watch which renders it a movie that lingers with you long after it finishes but nevertheless a film which you may wish to watch just the once.
Shame is out on DVD & blu-ray 14th May 2012.
Director: Steve McQueen
Stars: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale
Runtime: 101 min