Director Steve McQueen’s sophomore effort, Shame, is an admirably bold character study that lacks the uncompromising power and indelibility of his inaugural picture, Hunger. Both movies star the brilliant Michael Fassbender (X-Men: First Class), but while 2008’s Hunger had the actor playing a political prisoner so filthy and emaciated he looked like a victim of some medieval inquisition, Shame cleans him up. His Patrick Bateman style slicked hair, yuppie scarves, and Manhattan suits make him appear more presentable, but he’s not necessarily any cleaner.
An expose of a rich, urban sex addict, Shame finds Fassbender’s Brandon staring down cuties at work, bars, and on the subway like a sexual Superman. Women melt in his very presence, and when he’s not taking them home, he’s browsing through his library of porno magazines or adding to his work computer’s already contaminated hard drive. But in his contemporary Park Avenue anomie, such magnetism and obsession is a curse. It finds him—much like Marcello of La Dolce Vita—dissatisfied and void of any meaningful human relationships.
Brandon’s vulnerable lounge-singing sister (Carey Mulligan) makes a surprise visit, starts squatting at his apartment, and becomes an all-around thorn in his side. What use is she? Their relationship must stay platonic after all. The film becomes about the bottomless, downward shame-spiral that inevitably accompanies Brandon’s perverted lifestyle. The script takes on the staples of the Drug Addict Genre as Brandon pursues stronger highs and leaves his poor, depressed baby sis teetering on the edge, alone.
McQueen’s film delivers an unflinching portrait of a disease that’s only recently caught the public’s attention (with Tiger Woods’ extramarital exploits and all). Like in his debut, McQueen must be lauded for his bravery: what other filmmaker would have the guts to put the audience through Mulligan’s entire five-minute-long, breathy rendition of Sinatra’s New York, New York? What other filmmaker would force us to endure a seven-minute-long orgy sequence that has had any and all eroticism effectively sucked from it by the scene’s sad context? The bombardment of NC-17 material and determined artfulness is indeed numbing—but perhaps that’s the ultimate intention. Shame doesn’t find the ironic beauty in the inhuman like Hunger did. In fact, it achieves the opposite, finding the ugliness and neutrality in pleasure and sex. Unlike the former film, Shame hasn’t haunted my dreams much—yet it continues a pattern of courageous, ardent and sober films from an exciting new artist.