As the title implies, Steve McQueen's "Shame" is a mood piece, as abstract and as engrossing as the many Bach piano selections laid on the soundtrack. It's yet another impressive showcase for the subtle work of Michael Fassbender, who literally bares all to play a sex addict.
Fassbender plays Brandon Sullivan, who not only beds women on the regular, but also compulsively masturbates to all manner of kinky Internet porn and maintains a collection of DVDs and sex toys to enhance and/or fill the hours between conquests. His secret low-life plays out in counterpoint to his upscale Manhattan lifestyle: Brandon lives and works in skyscraping, hermetically sealed chambers, flashing a Mona Lisa smile to create just enough of an appearance of normality to deflect inconvenient questions.
There's one person in the world from whom Brandon can't hide, much as he tries: his bipolar sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan). Despite his dodging, Sissy storms the castle and Brandon cannot refuse her request to stay for a spell. Quickly, we're led to wonder if part of Brandon's neurosis involves carrying a torch for his torch-singing sis.
In one of two scenes that compete to be Brandon's ultimate nightmare, his manic, married-with-kids boss (James Badge Dale) makes -- right in front of Brandon -- an aggressive bid to bed Sissy, following a languid performance of "New York, New York" that moves her brother to tears. A yet-more-devastating disaster involves a literally and figuratively impotent attempt at forging a meaningful relationship with someone other than Sissy.
Writer-director McQueen ("Hunger," also with Fassbender) makes a clear choice to suggest rather than spell out the siblings' backstory. The Irish-born, Jersey-raised Brandon obviously shares with his sister memories of some form of abuse. ("We're not bad people," she insists. "We just come from a bad place.") Bonded by surviving the unnamed horror, neither has been able to find a partner more comforting than the other, and Brandon's attempt to keep Sissy at arm's length may well reflect his fear of his own romantic or sexual feelings for her.
Or not. McQueen leaves such matters for the audience to decide, which makes the seedily sexual "Shame," while hardly an ideal date movie, a definite if divisive conversation starter. Another appealing ingredient is the film's interesting use of New York City geography (especially in a tracking shot that follows Brandon on a head-clearing run) as a reflection of the protagonist's isolation.
Mulligan does her most impressive work yet in conveying her character's sloppy, terribly sad neediness, but the picture belongs to her co-star. Fassbender makes a strong case for himself as the next Jeremy Irons, taking on mostly serious-minded work and quietly revealing tormented men from inside-out embodiment. (It's hard not to wonder about how much Fassbender, with his presumable ease of attracting partners and his transitory lifestyle, may have inspired McQueen in the writing of the character.)
The story's events make the shameful Brandon more desirous of healing than ever, but he seems unable to change his ways, even as age threatens to force something of a lifestyle shift. True to form, the film's theme ends on an unresolved note.