Director: Steve McQueen
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge
Synopsis: In New York City, Brandon’s carefully cultivated private life — which allows him to indulge his sexual addiction — is disrupted when his sister arrives unannounced for an indefinite stay.
Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender) appears to have the kind of fantasy life to which all men are presumed to aspire. He’s young, good-looking, successful and has no problem picking up women. But socially defined measures of happiness are exposed as an illusion when Shame, Steve McQueen’s bleak, despairing drama, gets under the skin of its wretchedly unhappy protagonist. Because Brandon is gripped by a sexual addiction that strips down the act of lovemaking to one of mechanical grinding, a soulless activity to be endured but to which he is hopelessly drawn in the same way that a junkie is drawn to the needle. Each sex session seems to take him further away from the person he wants to be, makes him that much less capable of sustaining a normal loving relationship.
Like most functioning addicts, Brandon is adept at disguising his addiction – although, arguably, cracks are starting to appear even before his emotionally fragile sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) pays an un-announced and unwelcome visit. At work, his computer’s hard drive is found to be riddled with porn, but his boss David (James Badge Dale) is a friend and brushes it off, suggesting one of the interns is responsible. David likes to prowl the bars with Brandon, looking for available women. But his slightly overbearing chatty style meets with less success than Brandon’s reserved silences. When David gets off with Sissy and she takes him back to Brandon’s apartment, we see just what a disruptive force her intrusion into his life has on him. Both siblings have been damaged by their past – which remains un-revealed – but in different ways. While Brandon has developed a sex addiction which distances him from the emotions with which the act is usually invested, Sissy displays the more conventional neediness of a person starved of loving human interaction. Her mere presence therefore acts as a threat to Brandon’s meticulously constructed defences.
Steve McQueen has only directed two features (this and Hunger (2008)), but he has already developed a knack for powerfully depicting the isolation of his characters. Somehow, he can communicate more about a character’s inner suffering by allowing the camera to film the back of their head for 10 seconds than other filmmakers achieve with 90 minutes of dialogue. By carefully tuning out stimuli for our senses – shallow focus, no dialogue, no music – he forces his audience to reflect on what has gone before and how that has affected the character we are watching. The film opens with a lengthy shot of Brandon lying unmoving on his bed. He is so still that he might be dead, and in a way he is and we don’t need to know anything else about him to sense this. Ironically, Brandon’s helpless isolation is so dispassionately laid bare that we can’t help feeling compassion for him despite the remoteness of his character.
Shame doesn’t make for comfortable viewing – partly because McQueen avoids depicting Brandon’s addiction too overtly for most of the film. When Sissy takes David back to Brandon’s apartment and he can hear them in his bedroom, he doesn’t rush out of the apartment in search of a hooker, as many lesser filmmakers would have him do – but opts for the healthier release of a night-time run through largely deserted streets. It’s touches like these that keep a story – which could quite easily spiral out of control – anchored in a recognisable reality and makes the character of Brandon so believable. The real tragedy, which McQueen reveals with an admirable economy of style, is that Brandon’s a good person, a decent person whose addiction is slowly destroying him.