Shame is a film with plenty of sex but not much eroticism. As we watch Brandon (Michael Fassbender) engage in a series of carnal encounters during the course of Steve McQueen's film we discern no sense of joy or satisfaction on his part; the desperate look on his face simply suggests an insatiable need that cannot be satiated. Brandon is a sex addict, and like all addicts his thoughts rarely stray from the source of his next fix. He downloads porn at work and sneaks off to the office toilets to masturbate. In the evenings he might pick up a one-night stand or hire a prostitute, or he might just stay at home with his laptop and the girls of the internet for company. He lives from orgasm to orgasm, but it's a lifestyle that precludes any kind of real emotional bond with another human being, a state that McQueen and co-screenwriter Abi Morgan set out to challenge.
There's a certain vagueness to McQueen and Morgan's vision of their protagonist that is perhaps (being generous) intended to set him up as a kind of everyman; a blank canvas for the audience to project their own desires and insecurities onto. We never learn what exactly Brandon does for a living, although he's evidently good at it and it makes him a lot of money; we don't know how long he has been dealing with this sexual compulsion, although VHS tapes can be glimpsed in his porn stash; and we don't know what kind of relationship he has with his sister, although the film drops enough hints for us to surmise that they're no ordinary siblings. The needy, unpredictable Sissy (Carey Mulligan) arrives unexpectedly to disrupt Brandon's isolated lifestyle, and the film suggests either a background of abuse ("We're not bad people, Brandon, we just come from a bad place.") or incest, through Sissy's habit of being so often naked or near-naked in front of her brother.
Suggestion is as far as the film wants to go, however, and whatever depth or impact Shame possesses tends to come from Fassbender's commanding performance. McQueen relies heavily on the lead actor who also excelled in his directorial debut Hunger, and Fassbender again gives a forceful but understated portrayal, allowing the camera to linger on his face and pick up on his smallest gestures. This is most evident in the excellent early scene of flirtation on a subway train, when Brandon catches the eye of a female passenger and their clandestine glances threaten to lead to more until she suddenly remembers the ring on her finger and hurriedly escapes into the night. Fassbender holds the picture steady with his magnetic stillness, and actors like Mulligan can't help coming off as rather shrill in comparison. In fact, I'd have appreciated more time with Nicole Beharie, as a character who Brandon decides to treat as a romantic partner rather than another conquest. The two actors complement each other beautifully on their date, which McQueen allows to play out in long takes, but the connection Brandon makes with Marianne has its downside – when he does take her to bed, he can't get it up.
Shame is an odd title for this movie because it doesn't seem to be primarily about Brandon's sense of self-disgust or remorse at all. Instead, it's a film about his inability to form a lasting connection with another person and his crippling reliance on the drug that – at least temporarily – fills the void in his life. Shame is good at capturing the repetitive and self-destructive nature of addiction, but films about addicts so often have to ensure their protagonists hit rock bottom, and this is where McQueen starts to lose his grip on his picture. Brandon's downward slide ends with a long dark night of the soul in which he fingers the wrong girl and then ends up in what appears to be the New York branch of Le Rectum, the gay club that first appeared in Gaspar Noé's Irreversible. This dark passage culminates with a lurch into tragedy that feels schematic, and the operatic tone of the whole third act doesn't carry the same power as the quieter moments of Shame, the ones that really get under your skin.
McQueen is a man in complete command of the visual aesthetic of his films and he serves up numerous striking images here. From the crumpled sheets that bear the evidence of Brandon's antics the night before, to the stunning tracking shot that follows his late-night run, or the climactic threesome, in which the bodies of the participants are so gorgeously shot and lit. Shame may be a slightly uneven film but is the work of a talented filmmaker who is developing a distinctive style and a reputation for tackling challenging material, and Fassbender is clearly an actor with whom he has found a natural synergy. I wish they hadn't resorted to a shot of Brandon weeping and falling to his knees in the rain – I think they're better than such clichés – but even if it missteps occasionally, Shame remains an engrossing, impressive film, and there is an undeniable thrill in seeing a rare high-profile picture that's willing to deal with sex in a frank and serious manner.