Michael Fassbender and director Steve McQueen are not suffering from a sophomore slump. Following up their first brilliant collaboration “Hunger”—the story of Irish republican Bobby Sands’s hunger strike—with “Shame,” a story of sexual addiction with lots of movie star nudity, they prove there’s no slump, sophomore or otherwise.
Fassbender plays Brandon, a New York high roller with all the trappings of a perfect life. His shame is also the thing that informs almost everything in his life—he’s a sex junkie. He’s a functioning addict until his sister (Cary Mulligan) unexpectedly comes to stay with him and turns his life upside down.
“Shame” is rated NC17 and with good reason. There is a great deal of nudity, but bodies aren’t the only things bared here. Playing polar personality opposites Fassbender and Mulligan each reveal enough neurosis to keep Psyche 101 textbook writers busy for years.
He’s tightly wound, ordered in his addiction; a clean freak with control issues. She’s a free spirited musician who, much to his horror, drinks OJ right out of the box. She’s emotional, craving the kind of spiritual intimacy that he replaces with meaningless physical intimacy.
Still, despite their differences, they have a connection. At a nightclub he weeps as she sings a maudlin version of “New York, New York” and a late story development proves he loves her despite his apparent anger at her behavior and the effect she has on his life.
Fassbender uncovers the inner workings of Brandon, subtly portraying the change in his character as it dawns on him the impact his addiction has on him and those around him. It’s a completely physical performance in and out of the sack. Fassbender shows Brandon’s slow decline through a carefully modulated physical performance that tells us more about the character than pages of dialogue could.
Mulligan is a raw nerve, as emotional as Brandon is detached. The two don’t connect, but there is a bond between them that can’t be broken.
“Shame” won’t be for everyone. It’s explicit and impressionistic, but as a character study it is fascinating, thought provoking filmmaking.