Directed by: Steve McQueen
Written by: Abi Morgan, Steve McQueen
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan
Sex addiction is a subject matter no less compelling than the IRA hunger strike explored in Steve McQueen’s first critically acclaimed film, Hunger. With good looks, charm, and a well-to-do career and lifestyle in Manhattan, Shame‘s protagonist Brandon (Fassbender) is the last person you’d think of as a tortured soul. But with the intention of peeling back Brandon’s appearances to show a more vulnerable and emotionally confronting story, McQueen takes on a complex psychological condition that is difficult to represent effectively on screen. While undeniably powerful performances give depth to Brandon’s inner demons and burdened relationships, the unsurprising turn of events beg for a more creative and thought-provoking treatment of sex addiction.
Against the backdrop of a city that continuously buzzes with life and activity, McQueen masterfully captures Brandon’s changing emotions with the pace and movements of New York. From fancy restaurants to the empty streets piled with trash, Brandon’s inner experiences are never far removed from the space that he finds himself in. Everywhere he goes, his unrelenting addiction follows him, and when his sister Sissy (Mulligan) comes uninvited into his environment, Brandon has nowhere to run.
While McQueen’s focus on character depth and visual detail is enriched by Fassbender and Mulligan’s performances, the story itself demands a more original and compelling climax than the one that we are given. The accumulating conflict within Brandon has its peaks and its shameful lows. And despite the fact that this may reflect the pattern of an addict’s struggle, the wavering line between Brandon’s pain and pleasure is not compelling enough dramatically in the third act of the film.
Nevertheless, McQueen takes on an extreme, yet deeply human and powerful dimension of modern life with beauty and a sharp awareness of the visual landscape with which he works. By showing that loneliness is never satisfied by the most intimate acts of love available to the film’s protagonist, Shame explores a particular type of isolation, internal struggle and emptiness that isn’t found in the vast majority of dramatic films.