Brandon (Michael Fassbender) is a handsome, charming Manhattanite with a well-paid office job and a spacious studio apartment. He is also a sex addict. He stares at women on the subway and in his office, and he smoothly seduces them in bars. He has call girls at the end of the phone and a hard drive bulging with porn. When he comes home one evening to find that his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), has let herself into his apartment and back into his life, he is forced to examine his seedy and detached world as it is threatened by their complicated and explosive relationship. Director Steve McQueen’s cinematography is beautifully composed. This is not just a movie about a sex addict, but about a sex addict living in New York, and the anonymity and grandeur of the city provides the backdrop against which Brandon’s addiction unfolds.
Of course, this movie is full of sex. Fassbender masterfully portrays the lengths to which quiet, brooding Brandon will go to have any kind of sexual encounter. He has sex slowly, quickly, indoors, outdoors, with women and with men, and in a gratuitously long take, has an orgy. But the most powerful moments of this movie for me were not the sex scenes, because it is not the scenes themselves, but rather their consequences for Brandon’s life that matter. We are fully confronted with the destructive force of Brandon’s addiction over and over again, but we glimpse its consequences in the damaged and explosive relationship between Brandon and his sister.
It is here that the movie’s real shame lies. Brandon does not mistreat any of his sexual conquests, but he damages his relationship with his sister simply by ignoring her cries for help as he ignores everything else in his life, helplessly trapped in the cage of his addiction. When Sissy first arrives at Brandon’s apartment, homeless, jobless and broken-hearted, we are led to believe that they are lovers, or have been in the past. The strange sexual tension between sister and brother is excruciatingly uncomfortable to watch, but it provides a hint of family history that could be the source of Brandon’s addiction, the only glimpse we are offered of Brandon’s past life. Their volatile relationship also demonstrates that Brandon still has the capacity for real love. When he watches Sissy sing at a cocktail bar, tears roll down his cheeks in what is one of the film’s most moving scenes.
Mulligan’s performance is convicted yet delicate. She is simultaneously bashful and flirtatious and exquisitely vulnerable in a way that is almost painful to watch.
However, Shame’s portrayal of Brandon’s addiction is often too polished and contrived to fully present the rawness and agonizing reality of addiction. Its unconventional camera angles and long takes of Fassbender running distractedly around New York City draw attention to its artfulness and jarringly remind the viewer that the movie is meant to be a piece of art. And a beautiful piece of art it is, too – but what it gains in aesthetics, it loses in thematic impact.
Overall, however, Shame’s portrayal of this fragile sister and brother succeeded in powerfully depicting the consequences of addiction not just for the addict, but for those they love. It left one wondering how many of the millions of people in vast New York lead broken lives behind closed doors, and in their most desperate times, who do they turn to?