British director Steve McQueen reunites with his Hunger (2008) star Michael Fassbender (his fourth starring role this year following Jane Eyre, X-Men: First Class, and A Dangerous Method) for this modern tale of a high-class, NYC-based sex addict. While the main character’s affliction is established from the on-set with all erotic implications eliminated following the image of a post-coital, full-frontal Fassbender urinating, the effectiveness of the film hinges on what McQueen decides to both reveal and kept hidden. In other words, spoilers ahoy…
Well-kempt corporate drone Brandon Sullivan (Fassbender) eyes his female prey with steely glares that complement the metallic, inorganic Manhattan that he calls home. Brandon is a chronic masturbator who still finds time to employ prostitutes, pursue married women on the subway, and effortlessly pick up partners in posh nightclubs. These empty actions are immediately acknowledged as involuntary impulses, repetitive rendezvous that fail in providing his life with meaning. His style is immediately cramped upon the sudden appearance of his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan), a precocious free-spirit with a sultry voice and a shared history of…something disturbing. That something is never fully revealed as this somber, slow-paced character study is a world away from the implicitly-stated cult survivor story that was Martha Marcy May Marlene. Brandon and Sissy may have had an incestuous relationship, they may have been sexually abused by their peers. At the end of the day it doesn’t really matter where they come from, but how they deal with their backgrounds, though McQueen avoids providing an ultimate resolution on that front as well.
McQueen fills the films with long takes of flirty dinners and nighttime jogs that are punctuated by intense scenes of sexual aggression (what could be considered the film’s climax is particularly affecting, an orgy of intertwined limbs and animalistic facial expressions). The film does have its low points including a wild night out in which Brandon hits bottom with his retreat to an underground gay sex club that McQueen seems to convey as the depths of his character’s depravity. Brandon’s additional struggle with fidelity and respect towards the union of marriage also comes across as slightly trite, but the film is completely fulfilling regardless of the necessities of narrative. Must-see viewing this Christmas season.
Shame opens today at the Ritz Five.