An unflinching look at the life of a sex addict, British director Steve McQueen's SHAME is a fearlessly uncompromising, yet mesmerizing drama anchored by Michael Fassbender's tour de force performance.
The movie immediately catches attention with a beautifully composed, almost wordless eight-minute sequence where we first meet Brandon (Fassbender), a handsome and successful Manhattan yuppie in his 30s who's getting ready for work and commuting from his midtown apartment to an office cubicle. Somewhere in the middle, we see shots of him pleasuring himself in the shower and in the restroom at work. Apart from that, he also drawn to an alluring stranger (Lucy Walters) whom he keeps seeing on the subway, and one day follows her at her stop before losing her in the crowd.
Brandon is clearly a closeted sex addict, who's been very meticulous all this while not to reveal his perverted behavior to people he knows. But one day he is anxious when his office computer he's always surfing for porn, has been taken away to check for virus. Not only that, his life subsequently turning upside down when his younger sister, professional musician Sissy (Carey Mulligan) arrives at his apartment unannounced.
Despite its provoking themes of sexual addiction, Steve McQueen isn't interested to make his movie into a guilty-pleasure titillation often found in like-minded genre. Instead all the explicit nudity and sexual activities (where the movie earned the restrictive NC-17 rating) are presented as clinical as they goes. McQueen digs deeper at the emotional psyche of a sex addict where we see how Brandon goes through his mundane life desperately looking for sex to satisfy his animalistic urges. Together with his co-writer Abi Morgan, McQueen has successfully meditates on loneliness and isolation suffered by Brandon. Adding the profound layer is the complex brother-sister relationship between Brandon and Sissy. Both of them are certainly well-acted together.
As Brandon, Fassbender is impeccably acted. He's certainly well-deserved to be acknowledged for an Oscar nomination, which is (very) sadly ignored by the Academy earlier this year. Among his best revealing moments involves in a hotel room, where Brandon fails to get an erection when he tries to make love to a co-worker Marianne (Nicole Beharie) and ends up very frustrated. However, he simply screws a prostitute in the same room merely an hour or so later. For Carey Mulligan, she is similarly remarkable as the emotionally-unstable Sissy who's very needy. Earlier in the movie, she mesmerizes with her achingly beautiful voice where she performs the slow-jazz theme from New York, New York before Brandon and his boss (James Badge Dale). That particular scene alone is memorable as the camera holds on her for virtually the whole song. Here, we really see the deep emotion she truly conveys during her singing performance. Equally excellent is Nicole Beharie in a small but pivotal role as down-to-earth Marianne, who is the one drives Brandon emotionally attached in love rather than just casual sexual encounter.
Technical credits are top-notch, with the help of cinematographer Sean Bobbitt and editor Joe Walker often mesmerizes through long takes and tracking shots in a melancholy fashion. One particularly memorable such take is the scene where we see Brandon jogs along the street during the night after he can't stand witnessing Sissy having sex with his boss. In addition to that, Harry Escott's restrained cello-based score complemented the movie just well.
Not to forget also is the movie's memorable final set pieces involving Brandon's visit to a gay bathhouse and a threesome sex montage. No doubt McQueen knows well how to depict emotional complexity through visual interpretation without being preachy if handled by lesser director. Best of all, there's no easy resolution what happens to Brandon when the movie finally reaches to its conclusion.
A first-rate masterpiece.