It features a remarkable lead performance and is certain to be one of the year’s most controversial films, but Steven McQueen’s study of a man driven by sexual compulsion proves an oddly detached, bloodless affair. “Shame” is a viscerally compelling portrait of addiction, but in the end it seems more an intellectual and artistic exercise than a fully-rounded drama.
Michael Fassbender plays Brandon, a handsome, successful New York yuppie with some sort of unspecified white-collar job in a skyscraper office and an expensive modern apartment that’s tidy and uncluttered. He listens to Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier” on his CD player at home and over his headphones while he jogs. But he’s a dour, impassive fellow, joyless even while indulging in his creature comforts.
The reason? He’s a sex addict, trapped in an endless round of desperate, impersonal link-ups and—in a pinch—recourse to pornographic websites and self-stimulation. He hides the fact from his colleagues, especially his slimy boss (James Badge), a hopelessly unsuccessful womanizer, but he’s a prisoner of his own irresistible urges. His condition is hardly improved by the abrupt arrival of his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan), a sometimes singer who’s also a sometimes suicidal manic-depressive—and who insists on moving in with him during her stay in the city. How these siblings turned out to be such damaged souls is something the script by McQueen and Abi Morgan never bothers to address.
You have to acknowledge the audacity of Fassbender’s performance. If you’ll excuse the expression, he literally lets it all hang out, engaging in quite graphic acts with women, men and himself that earned the picture the long-feared NC-17 rating. But it’s essentially a one-note affair, the equivalent of a perpetually muffled cry of pain that’s interrupted only by a date scene when Brandon asks a pretty co-worker (Nicole Beharie) out to dinner, talks with her about relationships, but then finds himself unable to perform after they retreat to the bedroom. (Brandon, apparently, can’t allow real feelings to intermingle with sex.)
Nor dies Mulligan manage to fashion a complete character any more than she did in “Drive.” She certainly captures Sissy’s overwhelming neediness and extreme mood swings, most notably in an ultra-slow rendition of “New York, New York” she performs at a penthouse bar (which patrons unaccountably embrace as revelatory). But beyond the ostentatious show of self-destructiveness there’s not much there.
The emphasis on surface effect is, however, not so much their doing as it is the decision of McQueen, who might have done serious research on the subject in preparing the screenplay but in transferring it to the screen seems to have been more interested in the visual side than the psychological implications. Along with his production designer (Judy Becker), art director (Charlie Kulsziski), and set decorator (Heather Loeffler) he’s created a coolly antiseptic backdrop against which to set a tale of sad compulsion, and together with cinematographer Sean Bobbitt he frames it in images that give an ironically sleek, gleaming look to what’s really a sordid reality.
Despite what prudish detractors might say about it, McQueen’s film isn’t shameful; it’s not merely prurient or titillating. Unfortunately, except in the purely physical sense it isn’t terribly revealing, either.