The Irish filmmaker Steve McQueen looks to have a fairly histrionic career cut out for himself. He has so far made two films with singe-word titles suggesting undesirable states of being, both of which are about, imagistically and thematically, emotional excess, physical collapse, crying, persistence in the face of sheer madness, shit, metal, granite, self-destruction. To believe that he does not get a joyride out of his beautiful moving photographs of male (so far, male) misery would suggest that, as a filmmaker, he has nothing in common with the compulsive, emotionally flattened protagonist Brandon of Shame. But in spite of the fact that the instincts of Brandon and McQueen are similar, Shame is not self-expression, it is not a portrait, it does not have a message. I don’t know what it aspires to be, but at least it’s enthralling cinema.
Rather than make a work of art-film porn, as was the case with his first film, Hunger, McQueen has this time opted for an art film about porn. Brandon (Michael Fassbender) is a Manhattanite with a nice apartment in Chelsea, a white-collar office job, an interest in classical music and Don DeLillo novels, a reserved but charming demeanor, and an out-of-control addiction to sex and pornography. The latter trait is one he keeps private, but not too private. When he goes out for a night on the town with his boss (James Badge Dale, whose contribution to this film must not be underestimated) and some coworkers, he manages to pick up a pretty blonde who snubs his boss; later, his boss returns his computer with a clean hard-drive and observes to Brandon that his had drive was ‘filthy.’ At the same time, Brandon’s estranged sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) has shown up in his apartment, bringing some of her own emotional baggage and interrupting his cultivated regime of sexual release. This inevitably causes Brandon to lash out at her—though it also forces him to violently reassess his priorities. This reassessment is accomplished in one frantic, somewhat funny montage of Brandon dumping every porno magazine he has stashed in his closet, every sex toy and picture and finally, his laptop, in to a trash bag which he plops on one grimy sidewalk of many in New York.
After this point, the film becomes a brisker and more conventional narrative in which we start to fully root for Brandon. He takes a real girl, Marianne (Nicole Beharie), on a real date and tries to form a real connection. This development is a welcome step forward for Steve McQueen, who directed Hunger toward a tiresomely rigid conclusion. He allows Fassbender to explore his character in front of our eyes; this is because the character, Brandon, is exploring his own character in front of our eyes. This is one of the more enjoyable ways to watch an onscreen performance. But it is not to say there are not still problems with McQueen’s style; at its worst, Shame looks like a very expensive student film. A sex scene against a brick wall with the word ‘Fuck’ scrawled on it, and a melodramatic conversation between Brandon and Sissy in front of their television, which plays a cartoon, shows that McQueen is still not above kitsch imagery. But there isn’t far too much of it and Fassbender’s grace as a performer actually elevates some shots that might otherwise be kitsch in to the realm of film poetry. When he stands alone on a Chelsea pier in the pouring rain, tears at his hair and collapses in to a puddle, it isn’t just an image of a man at the end of his rope; it’s a fall on to hard, wet ground.
For all its seeming agenda—it explores a taboo subject! Millions suffer from this disease!—Shame quietly manages to avoid the trappings of an agenda film. It is not quite The Lost Weekend of sex addiction films, because it is not really a film about sexual addiction. It would not be too trite to call it a variation on the theme of a man who wants to escape himself, finds a woman who fails to help him escape, and slides back in to his torment even further, before seeing, maybe too late, some kind of clarity. In other words, a tragic love story in Greek drama form. Its attention to detail lets it stay grounded in the reality of New York life; the black grime of the subway tracks, the way walk signals, broken lights and broken trains constantly delay us. They also keep the story moving, and what more can we ask from a film?
But all this sound construction is not even what makes the audience leave this film so quietly, and with such shellshock. It is the profound sense of loneliness one gets from the eyes of Brandon, and from Sissy. It is from the reckless anxiety one senses in Brandon’s boss and the quieter anxiety we feel in Marianne. We can’t be sure if there’s too much addiction in this world, or too much need.