The sexual furies that roil the new movie Shame are poundingly, startlingly graphic for a mainstream release. (The picture is rated NC-17.) The film’s protagonist, Brandon Sullivan, played with fearless commitment by Michael Fassbender, is an emotional zombie anonymously employed in a glass-and-steel cubical farm in high-rise Manhattan. Brandon drifts through his workdays in a fog of apathy. His consuming interest is an unending search for orgasm—with prostitutes, with nightly pickups, often with himself in office bathroom stalls and laptop porn sessions in his sterile midtown apartment. It’s not much of a life, but it’s all that this priapic automaton requires.
The English director, Steve McQueen (Hunger), tracks Brandon’s obsessive prowlings with a serene, long-take camera style and carefully controlled color design, cooling out the action with Glenn Gould’s elegant Bach variations. So the blunt full-frontal nudity and frenzied couplings are kept at arm’s length, and drained of erotic sensation. The picture has a flawless visual beauty, but it’s as arousing as a laboratory report.
Although Brandon admits that his longest romantic relationship lasted only four months, some women are drawn to his unapologetic predation. (“I want to stick my tongue inside you just as you come,” he tells one of them, by way of introductory banter.) We see him banging away at his conquests against alley walls and big floor-to-ceiling apartment windows. He jokes that he’s actually a Neanderthal, and his icy compulsion does have a pre-human cast. When one of the women—a sweet office coworker (Nicole Beharie)—betrays glimmers of affection in the midst of a naked afternoon tangle, Brandon pulls away, unable to get off. After she leaves, he summons a call-girl, whose requirements are more agreeably straightforward.
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Brandon’s sleepwalking life is complicated by the arrival of his sister, Sissy (Carrie Mulligan in a boldly uncharacteristic performance). Sissy is a smalltime singer, and in one audaciously long close-up in a club scene, we see her whispering her way sadly through a spare arrangement of “New York, New York,” her uncertain voice barely rising above a dissonant piano accompaniment. Like Brandon, but in a different way, Sissy is deeply damaged. We never learn what went wrong in their earlier lives, but while it left Brandon paralyzed by indifference, Sissy is tormented by a desperate need for connection. Her brother is incapable of providing it, though. “You’re a weight on me,” he hisses, in a striking two-shot profiling them against an out-of-focus TV screen. “You force me into a corner, and you trap me.” Sissy is horrified by his frigid hostility. “Why are you so angry?” she asks.
We never find out. There’s something dark and tethered writhing behind Brandon’s dead eyes; at times, in isolated moments, it seeps out into his face; but it remains obscure and unknowable. “We’re not bad people,” Sissy says, squandering her kindness. “We just come from a bad place.” At the movie’s heart-crushing conclusion, we realize that Brandon still lives there, and in his agonized defeat may never move out.