“Shame,” directed by Steve McQueen (“Hunger”), aims to be an intense character study of Brandon (Michael Fassbender), a sex addict with intimacy issues. In fact, the film, which is getting buzz — and an NC-17 rating — for its sexual content, is not really about anything.
Brandon has copious amounts of sex. He has sex with two women at once. He has sex with women of different ethnicities. He has a guy suck him off. And, he masturbates at every opportunity — in the shower, in his office men’s room, and in front of his home computer.
Viewers get their first glimpse of Brandon naked, wrapped in a sheet in his bed. He stares vacantly at the ceiling, and only because he blinks do we know for certain he is alive. Brandon is emotionally dead; he feels nothing. He is empty. Naked.
Ignoring multiple phone messages from his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), Brandon walks naked through his apartment — a sleek, sterile, soulless environment that aptly reflects his soul. Audiences get an eyeful of Fassbender — his flaccid penis, his muscular ass, his wiry body. But there is nothing else to him. He is skin deep, like this film.
On the subway, Brandon undresses a fellow rider with his eyes. They make contact, but she eludes him. In another pickup effort, Brandon accompanies his married boss, David (James Badge Dale), to a bar. David tries to get a woman’s attention, but Brandon is more attractive, and she picks him up. They fuck under the word “fuck,” written in graffiti, in case viewers needed more emphasis.
The film is rife with such unsubtleties. When Brandon returns home one night, “I Want Your Love” is playing on the stereo and he discovers his sister in his shower — yes, Mulligan gets an extended full frontal nude scene, too. It’s a naked plea for affection, and Brandon agrees to put her up for a few days, even if it means he can’t bring women home for sex.
In one of the film’s few morally complex moments, after performing a concert at a club, Sissy brings David back to her brother’s apartment to fuck him — unaware or unconcerned that he is both married and Brandon’s boss.
“Shame” finally gets interesting when Brandon goes out on a date with Marianne (Nicole Beharie), a comely co-worker. The dinner turns into an awkward bad date when Brandon talks at length about his disinterest in having a relationship. The emotional hangover he experiences afterward involves self-hatred, self-abuse, and a fight with his sister. The following day, he gets into a bar fight, seeks sexual release in a gay club, and then hooks up with a pair of women.
Brandon’s downward spiral is not particularly compelling for audiences. Fassbender’s Brandon is little more than a tightly wound cipher. The hint that he and Sissy were incestuously intimate is never developed, nor, if it were, would it excuse his reckless behavior — or hers. A subplot exploring her fragility foreshadows a big moment that delivers little emotion and, instead, simply some eye-rolling drama.
McQueen and Fassbender struggle to get Brandon to feel something, but he loses himself in sex largely because he is unable to express or even feel emotion. Sissy, in contrast, is all emotion. The film overall is too cool — even too tedious and uninspired — to generate any passion. The actors go at it with bed-crunching gusto, but ultimately it’s hard to care about Brandon’s or Sissy’s situation. Like Brandon, viewers are likely to feel nothing.
To his credit, McQueen masterfully uses space — and reflective glass, in particular — to reveal his characters. His framing provides a deliberately detached perspective to the action. Even the sex scenes are clinical, throwing lots of cold water on the copious nudity.
One of the most sensual scenes is one of the oddest. Brandon uses a baseball bat to pick up Sissy’s scarf and stares at it curiously. He has finally found an intimate object that fascinates him, and the moment proves more revealing than a later scene where he sheds a tear during a musical performance by Sissy.
“Shame” is a glossy, good-looking film, and Fassbender is fascinating — at times, seductive — to watch, but his committed, full-bodied performance never quite excites or overcomes the vacuous heart of this film. Mulligan is just plan miscast — babyish when she should be delicate and lacking in the tragic despair her character needs to generate sympathy.
“Shame” is not wholly without merits, but given its ambitions, it needed to be a whole lot more provocative.
Directed by Steve McQueen
Opens Dec. 2
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