Following on from his feature debut, the latest film from former artist turned auteur Steve McQueen is a dark, brooding affair, depicting the seediest side of human nature and human desire.
Brandon (Michael Fassbender) has cultivated for himself distinctly different public and private personae. To those familiar with his public projection Brandon is charming, liked by his colleagues and a clear favourite of his sleazy boss, who despite his marital status encourages Brandon to join him traipsing through bars hoping to pick up woman.
Behind the closed doors of his sterile, clinical apartment, Brandon is nothing more than a shell of a man. His apartment – spotless, virginal – is at odds with the increasingly depraved acts that take place within: Brandon is, as the film’s opening graphically depicts, a sex addict. His addiction is all consuming: for Brandon sex itself is no longer a pleasure, instead it has become a desperately needed relief in order for him to function daily.
Brandon, despite this all-consuming addiction, is able to exist in daily life: discreetly visiting the staff bathroom to relieve himself during the day and downloading graphic content upon his work’s computer, whilst employing the services of prostitutes at night. Brandon would continue to exist in this manner, trapped in a self-abusing, self-destructive pattern, were it not for the arrival of his flighty, damaged younger sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan), who provides the catalyst for the film’s subsequent narrative.
Sissy is as much of an addict as Brandon: for Brandon, sex provides gratification and fulfilment, for Sissy, the sexual liaisons she engages with (spending the night with Brandon’s aforementioned married boss) smack of her own personal desperation. Sissy, in her lonely, desperate state just wants to be needed and to be loved.
Brandon and Sissy’s relationship is cloying, hinting at an implicit claustrophobic incestuous nature: Sissy, despite the private acts the pair both actively engage in, appears to have little regard or recognition for personal space. Little is told about their background, but it is apparent that something traumatic has occurred for the pair to both behave in such a manner.
The cast are wonderful: both Mulligan and Fassbender’s performances are commendably nuanced, both literally and metaphorically exposing themselves completely. Despite Mulligan’s admirable efforts, there is little doubt that this is, at all times, solely Fassbender’s film.
McQueen’s trademark sustained shots enable Fassbender to demonstrate the multi-faceted approach he brings to Brandon’s character. Later in the film we witness first-hand, through a lingering close-up, Brandon’s ultimately empty, effectively soulless drive for desire.
Critics of the film may find it hard to empathise with a character so devoid of persona, but importantly, this is precisely what Brandon’s desires have resulted in – he has become little more than a man continually looking for sexual relief, and it is to Fassbender’s credit that he can create a mesmerising performance with such a character. A raw, often horrific depiction of human desperation, Shame commands the viewer’s attention – try as we might, it’s impossible to look away.