The New York of Steve McQueen’s “Shame” is not the awe-inspiring world of skyscrapers, neon lights and teeming humanity so often romanticized on the screen. It’s a city that never sleeps, no doubt, but its insomnia is more a curse than a blessing, leaving its dazed inhabitants sunk in depths of depravity.
There we find Brandon (Michael Fassbender), whose addiction to sex so dominates his waking hours that nothing else — his job, his unhinged sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) or even the possibility of a real relationship — seems to matter. Everything is secondary to his quest to feel something, anything.
It is a sensation he seeks, not really pleasure, because we never get the sense that Brandon derives any joy from his conquests. Sex is a compulsion, an impersonal enterprise that merely fills an immediate need. Once he gets his fix, he’s back on the prowl.
In a different movie, Brandon might have been presented as living an alpha male’s fantasy, but here he’s pathetic.
He’s got the boys at work fooled. His boss, David (James Badge Dale, of TV’s “Rubicon”), admires his way with women, and it’s easy to see why.
A married man who still fancies the bachelor lifestyle, David inhales just enough liquid courage to give his bumbling attempts at seduction a laughable charm, but he can’t close the deal — except with Sissy, who’s not exactly discriminating. Brandon, however, knows every step of the dance; begging is not in his repertoire.
“Shame” is rated NC-17, which might have been a deathblow to an independent film struggling to find an audience, if not for Fassbender’s unsettling performance, which is sure to earn awards consideration.
Almost wordlessly, he captures the essence of a broken soul, a slave to his vices who would probably love nothing more than a vacation from himself.
Brandon has lots of sex, explicitly photographed and not the least bit titillating. There are secrets in his and Sissy’s pasts, though McQueen, who co-wrote “Shame” with Abi Morgan (“The Iron Lady”), only hints at what they might be.
Whether these backstory details are necessary is debatable. Without them, the movie is still devastating — and, at times, difficult to watch — though Brandon is so aloof that we’re hard-pressed to forge an emotional connection with him.
Maybe that’s the point. He is an enigma, wrapped in a riddle, inside a mystery. If there’s a key, it lies in a past we cannot know, and a future we can’t predict.
Starring Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale
Written by Abi Morgan, Steve McQueen
Directed by Steve McQueen
Running time 1 hour 41 minutes