Steve McQueen's second directorial effort is an unflinching portrayal of sex addiction
Sexual imagery oozes from every blockbuster and frat boy comedy, but serious discussion rather than cheap titillation is a rarity. Cinema actually finds it hard to confront sex, partly because the American censorship board takes such a puritanical view on adult sexual content, and partly because it’s very hard to get right. Yet visual artist and film director Steve McQueen (see interview) has done just that, making a film that succeeds through its realness.
Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender) is trapped. He has a high-powered job in an anonymous New York office, but he’s mired in his own world of addiction. His compulsion for sex rules his life, leading him from prostitutes to net porn to masturbation. It’s mechanical, sad and loveless. He lives in fear of his former conquests, haunted by their disembodied voices on his answer phone.
Then his sister, club singer Sissy (Carey Mulligan), drifts into his life and apartment upsetting the precarious knife edge of his existence. She’s equally damaged, demanding and vulnerable, but in her own way. There’s an uncomfortable tension between them, fuelled by something dark and foreboding hanging over their past. Her presence throws his life into turmoil. Without the space for his own psychosis, his cravings drag him into darker, more dangerous territories.
Fassbender’s performance is (as we’ve come to expect) stunning – detached yet wrought with pain. Mulligan is also on spellbinding form. Her rendition of ‘New York, New York’, shot in extreme close up, is heartbreakingly gorgeous, though not pitch perfect which increases its effectiveness. Shame is the very definition of adult filmmaking, tackling big, uncomfortable themes with intelligence and bleak realism. It doesn’t provide easy answers but McQueen has made a strangely lyrical film about ugly desperation.