Breaking all taboos, director Steve McQueen’s film Shame offers a harrowing and powerful glimpse into the life of a sex addict. Brandon, played by a brilliant Michael Fassbender, leads an outwardly successful and stable life in New York City, while inwardly his isolated, numb existence is perpetuated by a cyclical ritual of porn and prostitutes. Only the advent of his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) disrupts the cocoon Brandon has carefully constructed around himself and forces a self-reflection that takes him to his emotional and physical brink.
It is harrowing to watch a world in which Brandon has substituted intimacy with nudity and severed all real emotional ties, both to others and to himself, reflected in his minimalist, cold apartment that contains nothing but technology facilitating his addiction. As his life gradually spirals out of control, Brandon wrestles with a self-loathing that has long remained dormant under the surface. The viewer feels both painfully close and yet always at a distance as he watches Fassbender’s increasing display of raw despair and anger in long, slow-paced scenes.
The film never truly explains why Brandon is the way he is, or what had happened between them that makes the arrival of his emotional wreck of a sister wreak such havoc on his life. Frustrating at times, this adds to the idea that Brandon is an everyman, “one of us” as co-writer Abi Morgan and director/screenwriter McQueen put it. It highlights the severity of this problem and the very thin line that exists between healthy sexual relations and sex addiction. And it lets Fassbender’s intense performance speak for itself.
New York City looms large in the film and provides a haunting and powerful backdrop to Brandon and Sissy’s story. A cold, unforgiving city which facilitates Brandon’s anonymity and seclusion, it also exposes both siblings’ loneliness. One of the most telling scenes of the film is when Sissy sings Frank Sinatra’s New York, New York, poignantly exposing her longing and desire to find a state of peace and happiness, which is echoed by Brandon’s single tear that streams down his face.
Rarely does a film combine such powerful cinematography, brilliant lead actors, emotional score and a unique and distressing storyline that gets under your skin. While many questions are left unanswered, Morgan and McQueen do convey “hope that there’s hope” for the protagonist. Ultimately, it is a human tragedy, and Fassbender’s perhaps most physically and emotionally daring role yet explores a hitherto unexplored sense of shame.