As Shame presents it, sex addiction prevents the addict from having meaningful contact with another person. All conversations are perfunctory. In fact, all human contact is superficial. All business success is meaningless because everything comes down to this: How will I get laid next? How will that act keep everything at arm’s length? Sounds great, right?
See, Brandon (Michael Fassbender) seems as if he has it all together, but he’s silently suffering. He has no close relationships. He speaks to few people who aren’t potential sex partners and a quiet night at home for him is paying for a prostitute. He masturbates in the shower before work. He masturbates in the men’s room at work. His office computer is confiscated because he inadvertently downloads a virus while surfing for porn.
It sounds like an empty existence, but that’s the way Brandon prefers it. For whatever reason, he feels shame; the movie never fully addresses that issue, though it offers unsubtle hints. Sex with random partners quashes it. The one time Brandon tries to have a meaningful relationship with a woman, he can’t get it up (shocker). Moments later, we see him having sex with a different, unknown woman and then another.
As happens in the movies, Brandon’s quest to live without feelings is interrupted. His sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), shows up unannounced after leaving increasingly erratic messages on Brandon’s answering machine. Her mere presence throws his precarious equilibrium out of whack, and her behavior quickly pushes him to rage that he struggles to keep beneath the surface. An especially unpleasant altercation takes place after she walks in on him masturbating.
Sissy is Brandon’s opposite: loud, garrulous and needy. She attracts the wrong kind of men—including Brandon’s married boss, David (James Badge Dale), with whom she has a quick fling before he wants nothing to do with her. Together, Sissy and Brandon are two halves of a damaged whole.
When Sissy begins phone-stalking Brandon’s boss after their ill-advised tryst, Brandon nearly loses his mind. It’s at that point that his well-constructed, emotionless facade crumbles.
Shame is a good movie: well-made, well-acted. Its muted color palette reflects Brandon’s muted emotions. Its story is as simple as it sounds. Being enjoyable isn’t its goal. This is a character study of two wounded people. Mulligan is irritating as Sissy, but she’s intended to be. Fassbender, when he’s at his best (as he is here), registers emotion with the slightest quiver of his lip, the arch of an eyebrow, the hollowness of his gaze.
In one scene near the movie’s end, Brandon is having a raucous three-way, but is unable to keep his emotions tamped down with the sex. The chaos of Sissy’s visit has made him act out repeatedly, and though he tries to remain detached, something pulls him into the moment. All the anger, pain, sadness and guile of his existence floods his face at once. It’s unsettling and almost heartbreaking. The film’s end is perhaps inevitable, but it’s also marginally hopeful.
Shame’s NC-17 rating is well earned, though it’s difficult to imagine anyone under 17 wanting to see it. None of the sex in this movie is presented as remotely fun or carefree, just as alcohol is presented as a means of destruction in The Lost Weekend or Leaving Las Vegas. Shame is difficult at times to watch, but it will stay with you.
Directed by Steve McQueen
With Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan and James Badge Dale