Like most men, Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender) is constantly thinking about sex. He does more than think about it, though. Brandon is a successful executive who lives in New York City in a comfortable apartment. He is educated, intelligent, well-mannered and, by all outward appearances, perfectly sane. But like all functioning addicts, Brandon secretly devotes every spare moment of his life to feeding his obsession. And as inevitably happens with addiction, the more he feeds it, the more he wants.
Shame is a movie about a man addicted to sex — doing it, looking at it, chasing it, arranging it — and because he lives in Manhattan, the most enabling of all cities, his compulsion has consumed him. This is the second film by director Steve McQueen, whose first movie, Hunger, forced you to experience the hunger strike that killed IRA member Bobby Sands right along with him. Shame isn’t as viscerally grueling as that picture, but it works on a similar sensory level. The difference is that this time, McQueen wants to put you inside his protagonist’s head instead of his body.
Why does Brandon do what he does? How did he get this way? Fassbender’s performance — one of the most memorable pieces of acting of the year — helps us to empathize with a man whose actions are incomprehensible. Actors often center the relatable humanity in the characters they play to connect with the audience, but Fassbender, like Charlize Theron in Young Adult, doesn’t take the easy route. He keeps Brandon’s demonic motivations private, the way the character keeps his life a secret from the rest of the world, and McQueen does the same thing with the movie. Shame shows, but it doesn’t explain, and the movie’s embrace of the unknowable nature of its protagonist is one of its most admirable traits.
The plot of Shame follows what happens when Brandon’s sister, the profoundly damaged Sissy (Carey Mulligan), comes to stay with him for a few days. Sissy’s presence wrecks Brandon’s usual pattern of entertaining high-class hookers, and when she hooks up with his boss (James Badge Dale) and has sex with him in Brandon’s bed, the already-strained relationship between the siblings is stretched even further. Then it snaps altogether.
McQueen shoots a lot of conversations in Shame from behind the actors in long takes, making us feel as if we were eavesdropping. Accordingly, the dialogue rarely spells out what you really want to know — something obviously happened to Brandon and Sissy when they were younger, but what was it? — and although the movie is rife with strong intimations, Shame never stoops to psychoanalyzing its characters. That would make them too easy to categorize.
Shame, which is rated NC-17, contains some graphic sex scenes, although they are never gratuitous, and they are not intended to be erotic, either (the sexiest moment in the film happens on the subway, when Brandon silently flirts with a woman, both of them fully dressed). Some critics have clucked that Shame doesn’t really sell its central premise, that Brandon’s plight is not convincing and that the movie lacks passion. Why doesn’t Brandon just stop, right? That’s the same reasoning used by people lucky enough to have never brushed up against addiction in any form. Why can’t the alcoholic stop drinking? Why can’t the smoker stop lighting up? It’s a naïve, aloof way of thinking.
Near the end of the film, when Brandon's worst fear comes to pass, he resorts to desperate measures to get a fix - anything and anyone to prevent him from dealing with what has transpired. The scene has been widely misread, I think: It is when Brandon does what he does, and not who he does it with, that is supposed to signal the low point of his downward spiral. But it is far easier to mock Shame’s unhappy sex and silly, doomed protagonists than to consider them. The beauty of McQueen’s movie — and this is a ravishing piece of filmmaking, despite the grimness of the material — is that it never patronizes you, and it is not afraid of ridicule. Yes, the film is blunt. But so is Brandon. And McQueen has no interest in hip irony. Shame is fearless in the way the most ambitious art often is, and to write it off for what it doesn’t do is reductive and misguided. You don’t just watch Shame: You feel it, too.
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale, Nicole Beharie.
Director: Steve McQueen.
Screenwriters: Steve McQueen, Abi Morgan.
Producer: Iain Canning, Emile Sherman.
A Fox Searchlight release. Running time: 101 minutes. Vulgar language, considerable nudity, graphic sex, strong adult themes. No viewers under 18 admitted. Opens Friday Dec. 16 in Miami-Dade: South Beach; in Broward: Gateway.