In his previous film, "Hunger," starring Michael Fassbender, writer-director Steve McQueen explored the power of self-denial. Now McQueen and Fassbender have reunited for "Shame," a dark but gripping exploration of the destructive power of self-indulgence.
Fassbender stars as Brandon, a handsome, successful professional living in New York City, whose pursuit of sexual gratification, is all consuming. He surfs porn at work, hires prostitutes, picks up women anywhere and everywhere, masturbates with an uncommon frequency. His tireless quest is thrown into havoc by the arrival of his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), a lounge singer with no place else to go. As her presence continues to encroach on his lifestyle, he becomes more and more agitated, sending him on a collision course with a breakdown.
This is Fassbender at his best, delivering a performance so ruthless and raw, relentlessly matter-of-fact that you don't hate Brandon, you just pity him. Brandon is monomaniacal to the point of not even being able to take pleasure in sex, all he can do is pursue it, get it, and then hunt anew.
As she did in "Drive," Mulligan here takes a small role if only for the chance to work with a great director and actor. But her character Sissy is much more developed here, and Mulligan does her justice. Her stripped-bare take on "New York, New York" (with a brilliant phrasing crafted by McQueen) drives one of the film's most powerful scenes, one that brings Brandon to tears.
The third star of "Shame" is New York City itself, which is used to such effect that it seems impossible that McQueen originally conceived the film to be set in London. McQueen trolls up and down her streets at all hours. From the depths of the subway system to the heights of The Standard Hotels' notorious windows (an exhibitionist's dream), McQueen mines the city like a native. He even gives a nod to the New York's bygone heyday of bacchanalia, spinning hits by Blondie and Chic, two of the bands that provided the soundtrack for the days of Studio 54, a party that would soon give way to the reality of AIDS.
The film's frank portrayal of sex has drawn lazy comparisons to "Last Tango in Paris" and "Midnight," but that's kind of like saying "Bull Durham" is reminiscent of "The Natural." Brandon is a wholly different creature, the likes of which can only be concocted by a director-actor tandem as trusting and fearless as McQueen and Fassbender. But the film's NC-17 rating is well earned, as "Shame" is very much an "adult film" in the adult sense of the phrase, as it is filled with graphic sex and nudity, but it is devoid of titillation (though there's no doubt someone will be aroused).
"Shame" opens in limited release this Friday