Artist-turned-director Steve McQueen’s new film, Shame, is the story of a free man gorging himself. Brandon (Michael Fassbender) is ruled by his penis; through days and nights, the executive compulsively sexes the pain away. Commuting to work, he silently macks on married women on the subway. At his office, he desperately masturbates in the men’s room and downloads porn on the company computer.
Meanwhile, Brandon is trying to keep his enormously troubled sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), at arm’s length—not an easy task, since she’s come uninvited to stay at Brandon’s one-bedroom apartment.
As in a porn film, the worksite seems to be an office for the manufacturing of double-entendres. “You fucking nailed it today!” says David, emphasis on “nailed.” Brandon’s fellow worker Marianne (the delightful Nicole Beharie) sidles up and asks Brandon if he likes sugar—for his coffee, that is.
There’s a retro air in the film’s American Psycho–style interior decoration, and in Brandon’s collection of LPs. As Sissy demands more attention, McQueen leaves the possibility of incest open, particularly in Sissy’s vague line to her brother: “We’re not bad people; we just come from a bad place.”
Shame‘s strength is the kamikaze acting by Fassbender. Every critic this side of the one at Highlights for Children has mentioned his frequent full-frontal nudity. Fassbender is brave for doing these scenes, but his other qualities are more interesting: his ruthlessness, his sense of panic and his total ravenousness. Unlike that other driven Manhattan compulsive Don Draper, Brandon makes us guess what he’s running from and what he’s running toward.
Since Shame is an addict’s tale, it ends showing us Brandon bottoming out, soon after a date with Marianne. This last mad night of soulless compulsion is meant to be alienating, but unfortunately it looks like wild fun, no matter how ominously McQueen scores and shoots it.
‘Shame’ is playing at Summerfield Cinemas and the Rafael Film Center.