2011 has been Michael Fassbender’s year. From the latest entry in the blockbuster X-Men franchise to period roles in films like Jane Eyre and A Dangerous Method, the Irish-German actor has continued to impress critics and audiences alike. And this isn’t some Jude Law-style fluke—Fassbender is an extremely talented and handsome actor whose onscreen presence fits comfortably in both action films and more experimental cinema. This point is driven home in artist-turned-filmmaker Steve McQueen’s second film, Shame. McQueen and Fassbender previously worked together in the director’s astounding debut, Hunger, and the two have at least one more film in development together. Shame offers further proof that this continues to be a fruitful relationship for both.
The central theme of Shame is cold, anonymous, compulsive sex in Manhattan’s corporate, yuppie world. Fassbender plays Brandon, an ad agency employee whose entire world revolves around watching porn, random sex with strangers and escorts, and eye-fucking women on the subway. There are no boundaries in Brandon’s life, which is why he arrives at work to find his computer, initially removed by IT because of a virus, has subsequently been found to have a hard drive overflowing with porn. Brandon motors through his days and nights like a yuppie robot, sort of a modern-day Patrick Bateman, without the murder.
There is no sensuality involved with his sex drive. For Brandon, lovemaking is a bodily function, like eating or sleeping (both of which he does very little of), rather than an expression of desire. McQueen’s camera soaks it all in, earning the film its NC-17 rating—although, of course, if this were violence instead of nudity and simulated sex, the film would have probably only garnered an R rating. In the opening shots of the movie, we see Fassbender’s ass and penis several times as he walks back and forth in front of a stationary camera after a night of sex. The shot is both explicit and mundane—at one point, he enters the bathroom and urinates into the toilet, something we rarely see in film though it’s obviously one of the most commonplace activities. The women with whom he sleeps are shown naked, as well, but McQueen appears mostly intent on exposing Brandon to the audience. This doesn’t make him vulnerable as much as it allows the viewer to understand how little it all means to him.
An ominous-sounding score plays against scenes of Brandon riding the subway and having sex, giving the proceedings a forbidding air. Everything is sexualized for him, as he compulsively masturbates in the bathroom at work, more of a Pavlovian reaction to seeing a woman’s breasts through her shirt than anything resembling desire. His world is rudely and disturbingly interrupted when his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), unexpectedly arrives at his apartment one night. Their relationship is fraught with tension, and most unnervingly, an underlying, angry eroticism. Her behavior towards him is borderline flirtatious, leading to frightening moments of rage that erupt through Brandon’s otherwise poised demeanor. Mulligan injects Sissy’s emotional neediness with a playful and thoughtless sensibility, just the right formula to infuriate Brandon, as any hint of a real emotional connection seems too much for him to handle. As she tries to embed herself deeper into his life, things appear destined for tragedy.
Shame is an effective, emotional, and seductive film. McQueen is clearly a skilled director capable of coaxing deep and nuanced performances from actors and creating a stunning visual tableau. A film such as this asks a lot of its actors in terms of opening themselves up physically and emotionally, but McQueen and his cast strike all the right notes in tone and feeling.