I’m beginning to think that Michael Fassbender is a genius. An acting god among mere puppets. Because the truth is, without his talent to carry Shame, it probably would have been a film easily forgotten. Instead, it is a haunting, disturbing movie about a man who is slave to one of the most basic of human needs, a desperate addict tortured by his compulsions. Fassbender stars as Brandon Sullivan, a seemingly successful businessman in New York who lives alone and makes no effort to maintain any personal relationships. His sister, who calls regularly and leaves sad, lonely messages that Brandon ignores, appears in his apartment one night needing a place to stay. Sissy, played by the lovely Carey Mulligan, is a bit of a train wreck – bleached hair and bad make-up, always braless and penniless. Her sudden intrusion in Brandon’s life puts quite the dent in his rigid routine and he quickly unravels at the seams.
Steve McQueen, whose debut film Hunger put him on the world’s cinematographic map because of its bleak realism and heavy subject matter, stays true to form in Shame. There are moments so genuine, so painfully real, you count the seconds until the scene ends, a feat not easy in itself because McQueen favors unusually long takes. At times, they felt too long, slowing the film’s pace enough to make its 99 minute running time feel much longer. But he makes up for it in general content and in the performance he gets out of his lead star. Fassbender’s range is well documented here, for any of you fools out there who doubt him. In an early scene, he manages to eye fuck a darling redhead on Manhattan’s subway effectively enough to make her squirm in her seat. And you’ll squirm, too. Without a word, without a single sound, he conveys more confidence and persuasive appeal than most men can muster on their best day. Toward the end of the film and at the opposite end of the emotional spectrum, after failing to react appropriately to a woman he actually cares about, he desperately seeks gratification in the company of what I assume are a couple of working girls and at the moment of climax, he (again, wordlessly) lays bare the wretched emptiness and self-loathing that feeds his addiction.
Carey Mulligan manages, somehow, not to be her usual adorable self here and instead looks like the junkie her on-screen brother is. No details are revealed but it is strongly implied that these two siblings lived through something painful enough to essentially ruin them both. Their relationship feels, at times, close and at others, unbearably strained. The city of Manhattan is the third star and the duality so superbly showcased by Fassbender is mirrored in the back and forth between its impressive landscapes and the grimy, filthy bars and clubs where Brandon seeks an easy conquest.
Shame is not a movie one could watch repeatedly and it’s not one some could watch even once. Bits of it are terribly slow and much of it is sharply uncomfortable. Anyone looking for a sexy flick in which both Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan offer full frontal shots will be disappointed here. Oh, you will see every naked inch of Michael Fassbender and nearly as much of Carey Mulligan and there is plenty of sex to go around, but you won’t feel good about it. In fact, Shame does for sex what Super Size Me did for fast food: it shows you just how sick it can be.