For about 10 minutes mid-way through British writer-director Steve McQueen’s addiction-drama “Shame,” it almost feels like you’re watching a normal movie. Two adults sit together at a restaurant on an awkward first date, making forced small talk and sharing and challenging each others’ philosophies about love and relationships. Later they walk through the dark streets of Manhattan, trading childhood memories and if-you-could-live-anytime-anywhere-style banter that sounds like it was borrowed from the screenplay of “(500) Days of Summer.” For a moment you believe things might actually be getting better. But this is nothing but a calculated illusion, as McQueen artfully weaves a sickening sense of dread into the fabric of the scene, foreshadowing the inevitable return to a world of vice and dependency. At once, he rejects the conventional Hollywood romance narrative and his addict-protagonist’s ostensible attempt at a normal life.
And so goes this dark character study, a patient examination of the life of Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender), a highly successful businessman secretly battling a consuming sex-addiction. The first portion of the film establishes the empty monotony of Brandon’s existence, as he navigates a never-ending cycle of work, masturbation, and the comparative thrill of the upscale Manhattan singles bars frequented by his high-power corporate associates.
Then Brandon’s grim, but ordered existence is thrown into disarray with the unexpected arrival of his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), a singer with an equally troubled past. Sissy brings her own set of problems, but—more than anything—disturbs Brandon through her continuous attempts to foster some kind of sibling intimacy. “We’re family, we’re meant to look after each other,” Sissy said. But that kind of connection is simply beyond Brandon’s emotional reach.
From there, the pair’s stories devolve, each embarking on their own downward spiral. Sissy has an emotional overdependence on Brandon, through his uncontrollable cravings and utter inability to connect. Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, who served as McQueen’s Director of Photography on his debut feature, Hunger, deftly constructs a visual world to complement this bleak story, painting modern Manhattan in the beiges and grays of a boring but elegant upper-class bathroom.
McQueen, in his own right, flexes an expert ability to construct complex scenes and patiently pace a story. Filling the film with single shots that span conversations or several city blocks, McQueen perfectly captures the droll, repetitive hopelessness of a life of addiction. Occasionally, he tries to do too much, overexerting his directorial influence. As a result, the film is at times weighed down by obvious symbolism and ineffective melodrama—the worst example being an ending uncomfortably reminiscent of that of 2010’s vapid brain-teaser “Inception.” For the most part, however, McQueen sticks to his hands-off approach, and allows his actors to do most of his work for him—and it is this instinct that ultimately makes Shame the excellent film that it is.
Mulligan, of course, delivers a tremendous performance (as if we expect anything less from her), tempering her signature innocence with a host of sinister insecurities that occasionally explode onto the screen. It is Fassbender, however (most known for his portrayal of a young Magneto in last year’s X-Men: First Class), who steals the film, delivering an agonizing and nuanced performance that perfectly encapsulates the misery and isolation of chronic sexual dependence. The result: a tragically beautiful film that searches for, and ultimately finds, redemption in the darkest of places.
Shame will be screening this Sunday, April 29, in Harris Cinema at 2:00 p.m. Woody Allen’s classic romance, Annie Hall, will be showing on Friday, April 27, at 6:00 p.m.