Grim, unsentimental and unsparing, “Shame” is an up-close look at a man trying to negotiate everyday life with a crippling sexual compulsion.
Michael Fassbender plays Brandon Sullivan, a successful junior executive at a nondescript firm who has based his entire personal and professional life around the acquisition and consumption of sex, whether in the form of pornography, prostitutes or casual encounters.
Those compulsions play out in some of the most graphic sexual simulations ever presented in a theatrical feature. The sexual content is not designed to titillate but to show the pathologies of Brandon’s desires. It represents an inversion of the subgenre of sadistic horror movies, such as the “Saw” series, that have come to be known as torture porn. “Shame” is porn torture — a movie that uses graphic sex to immerse its audience in the relentless self-abnegation of its tormented protagonist.
Brandon’s life begins to unravel with the arrival of his troubled sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan), who demands to stay at Brandon’s Manhattan apartment while she is in town singing at a swank nightclub. After a sodden night on the town, Sissy sleeps with Brandon’s boss David (James Badge Dale), an ill-advised move that serves to rouse all of Brandon’s demons.
The movie is deliberately vague about what drives Brandon’s compulsion, although his tense, sexually charged relationship with his sister and his furtiveness about his background hint at a dark past. In one of the movie’s few memorable lines, Sissy says to her brother, “We’re not bad people. We just come from a bad place.”
It’s not a put-down to say “Shame” lacks memorable dialogue. The movie does most of its work visually. Mr. Fassbender is particularly excellent in showing how Brandon tries to keep his urges from showing in his daily life, even as they pulse deep inside him. It’s an intense and committed performance that recalls the best work of Willem Dafoe.
To some extent, the acting is undercut by director Steve McQueen’s whimsical use of juxtaposed words and images. At several points, Brandon appears on the subway framed next to stray, decontextualized bits of advertising copy such as “How is this possible?” and “Improving Non Stop.” At another point, he is shown next to a broken and contorted “Don’t Walk” sign. This art student’s conceit isn’t merely too obvious, it distracts the viewer from any identification with Brandon and instead positions him as a piece in a broader work of art, which runs counter to the overall thrust of the movie.
“Shame” is certainly not for everyone, but it accomplishes what it sets out to do. It’s that rare creature — a good movie that is difficult to watch. There’s no one to root for, no plot worth describing and no possibility of resolution or redemption. Despite that, “Shame” is a haunting and memorable cinematic experience.
★ ★ ★ (out of four)
CREDITS: Directed by Steve McQueen. Written by Abi Morgan and Mr. McQueen.
RATING: NC-17 for extremely graphic depictions of sex
RUNNING TIME: 101 minutes