When it comes to the subject of sex addiction, our culture has taken an attitude of humorous deniability. Movies like “Blades of Glory” use the condition as a punchline, while news of Tiger Woods confessing that he has a sex addiction are met with slews of laughter and lines like “Not a bad condition to have, right? HA!”
Steve McQueen’s new film, “Shame,” which is now playing at Cedar Lee Theater, approaches the subject with a jolting seriousness and shines a light on the horrific consequences of an addiction that is as serious as any other.
Brandon (played by Michael Fassbender of “X-Men: First Class”) is a young Manhattan business socialite. He’s bright and charming. He has a successful career and owns a fancy downtown apartment. He goes out with co-workers, exercises regularly and has a fondness for classical music. Unfortunately, he also can’t go a few hours without being sexually active. Brandon is a sex addict, and the barrier between his two separate lives is slowly deteriorating.
He seeks sex from hookers, random strangers on the subway, and cannot even go a full day at work without pleasuring himself in the bathroom. Things are made all the worse when his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan), who is equally troubled in a different way, crashes at his place unexpectedly and indefinitely.
If anything needs to be said about “Shame,” it’s that Michael Fassbender’s performance hits it out of the park. His turn as Brandon is visceral and unapologetic. You will be disgusted with the things Brandon does, yet at the same time sympathize with him. He is a man who is truly lost.
There is a scene in the film where Brandon goes crazier than usual and absolutely hits rock bottom. During these intensely graphic scenes (the film earns its NC-17 rating), Fassbender perfectly conveys the joylessness of Brandon’s uncontrollable compulsion. When he cries, you feel a black hole in your stomach.
Less impressive is Carey Mulligan’s performance as Sissy. Perhaps it’s the fault of the dialogue, but her character is unlikable for most of the film. She makes bizarre decisions and during their squabbles, you will usually find yourself siding with Brandon. Though, when the stakes are high, Mulligan showcases her character’s desperation for a human relationship with a lack of subtly the performance requires.
The problem with “Shame” is that while much of its nudity is necessary to the film, some of the scenes involving it are done just for shock value.
There are two scenes especially, that elevate the otherwise very believable brother-sister relationship of Brandon and Sissy to just plain bizarre.
McQueen directs with a deserved confidence. Many of the scenes are shot without cuts, giving them a theatrical vibe. There is a stunning scene in which Brandon goes jogging to escape what he would otherwise be doing. The camera follows steadily alongside him for about two minutes. It’s a scene that would be brutally dull if filmed another way, but McQueen makes it absolutely beautiful to watch.
Unfortunately he often overdoes it, and the results are painfully slow, such as a scene where the audience has to watch Mulligan pretend to be a professional singer for four whole minutes.
On the whole, “Shame” is effective and relevant. Its problem is that its slow pace and refusal to give any resolution is a weakness, not a strength.
Brandon’s story ends where it begins, and it’s a shame Fassbender wasn’t given more to do, more depths to sink to.