Few filmmakers have plumbed the soul-churning depths of sexual addiction as fearlessly as British director Steve McQueen has in “Shame.” A mesmerizing companion piece to his 2008 debut, “Hunger,” this more approachable but equally uncompromising drama likewise fixes its gaze on the uses and abuses of the human body, as Michael Fassbender again strips himself down, in every way an actor can, for McQueen’s rigorous but humane interrogation. Confrontational subject matter and matter-of-fact explicitness will position the film at the higher end of the specialty market, but it’s certain to arouse critical acclaim and smart-audience interest wherever it’s shown.
There are many reasons to be grateful for “Shame,” not least of which is its chastening vision of a man in thrall to a craving fed by the conveniences of 21st-century technology and an urban, independent lifestyle. Still, the viewer needn’t have walked in the protagonist’s particular shoes to identify with the feelings of isolation and all-consuming need so piercingly examined here. From an aesthetic standpoint, one can only marvel at how Turner Prize-winning video artist McQueen has transitioned from “Hunger’s” austere study of enclosed environs to a more open, traditionally constructed narrative without abandoning the formal deliberation and moral concerns that have informed his work.
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A beautifully composed, virtually wordless eight-minute sequence introduces Brandon (Fassbender), a handsome, successful Manhattanite in his 30s, getting ready for work and commuting from his midtown apartment to an office cubicle. But his routine is shot through with unease: From the first frame he looks haunted, almost half dead, and shots of him pleasuring himself in the shower and in the restroom at work, or making silent overtures to a pretty girl on the subway, provide queasy indications as to why.
More clues are dropped, with increasing bluntness. Brandon’s work computer is temporarily confiscated due to a host of viruses. When he and his boss, Dave (a fast-talking James Badge Dale), go out for drinks and pick up women, Dave’s excessive flirtation proves far less effective than Brandon’s cool reserve. Apart from these outings and regular one-night stands, Brandon has little interaction with others, leading a benumbed existence that seems to suit him fine.
Until, that is, his long-unseen younger sister, rather literally named Sissy (Carey Mulligan), turns up unannounced at his apartment and settles in for an indefinite stay. A blowsy, talkative, compulsively needy type drifting from one singing gig to another, Sissy is her brother’s polar opposite, and she proceeds to invade his carefully cultivated privacy in ways that range from the merely irritating to the downright irresponsible.
A director captivated by repetition and ritual, McQueen (who co-scripted with Abi Morgan) might well have withheld plot developments in favor of a spare, quotidian character study in the Chantal Akerman vein. But “Shame” pushes past mere observation. By bringing in Sissy and hinting at a past that clearly wounded the two siblings in different ways, the film breaks Brandon wide open, pushing him toward rock-bottom and forcing him to reckon with himself and others. It’s as if McQueen, having presented a soul in extremis, were unwilling to leave him in that condition.
We’re meant to understand that shame, which festers in solitude, can be a healing force when brought into the open. To that end, the film’s third-act calamity won’t convince everyone, but if it feels a bit studied as a climactic gesture, it in no way compromises the integrity of the characters and the difficult journey that lies ahead of them.
As self-starved IRA member Bobby Sands in “Hunger,” Fassbender gave a performance so frighteningly physical it seemed almost as committed an act of martyrdom as his character’s. He matches that achievement here and in some ways surpasses it, enacting a more figurative form of imprisonment and self-mortification. Completely unself-conscious about the full-frontal nudity and graphically simulated sex acts required of him, the actor peels back layers of lust and self-loathing to become a consummate vessel for the director’s intentions. Even when he says nothing, which is most of the time, Fassbender transfixes.
Sporting a short, bleached-blond hairdo and often clad in vintage garments that clash with David Robinson’s otherwise gray, toned-down costumes, Mulligan energizes the picture with a spirited, sassy turn that at one point also requires her to bare herself for the camera. Her character’s musical solo midway through the film, filmed almost entirely in a single closeup, is one of many exquisite interludes that give this tough-minded picture a soul. So, too, does Nicole Beharie, wonderfully real and affecting as Brandon’s co-worker Marianne, whose attempts to kindle a flame become the film’s heartbreaking centerpiece.
Seeming to unfold in perpetual night, the New York-shot production treats the city not just as a seductive backdrop but as an incubator of Brandon’s pathology, moving from sterile, glassy interiors to grungier environs as his descent quickens. Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt and editor Joe Walker, who both worked on “Hunger,” retain their aesthetic of meaningfully framed long takes and tracking shots set to a controlled rhythm. But they allow the film to breathe more naturally in keeping with its less oppressive tenor, aided by composer Harry Escott’s resonant, largely cello-based score.