In essence, Steve McQueen’s Shame is a message movie, and that message is “Scoff all you like, but sex addiction is as legitimately terrifying and life-destroying as other forms of addiction.” This puts it firmly in line with old-fashioned social dramas about alcoholism, like The Lost Weekend or Days Of Wine And Roses, or substance abuse, like The Man With The Golden Arm—not bad company by any means, but indicative of the down-the-middle conventionality that lurks behind the film’s bold style and NC-17 explicitness. There’s no great mystery or depth to Shame, which sketches its characters with a stark simplicity that borders on merely crude, yet it’s told with tremendous clarity and power, especially when it deals with the hows—rather than the whys—of sex addiction. And in the Internet age, McQueen reveals, it’s something akin to locking an alcoholic in an eternal Happy Hour.
Affirming his status as Daniel Day-Lewis’ heir apparent—handsome, magnetic, intense, yet versatile and fearless—Michael Fassbender reunites with McQueen, who directed him in the superb 2008 debut feature Hunger. Again, Fassbender leaves nothing in reserve. To colleagues and outside observers, he presents the image of a stone-cut corporate raider, extremely well put-together, and enjoying the spoils of a tomcatting Manhattan bachelor. Yet each day is about getting to the next sexual encounter—whether that means one-night stands, high-priced escorts, or furious masturbation sessions in public bathrooms or in front of his porn-choked laptop. He attempts to change his habits, and starts dating a lovely woman (Nicole Beharie) from the office, but reform proves difficult, particularly once his equally disturbed sister (Carey Mulligan) turns up and brings the past with her.
Shame plays coy with the specific traumas that plague Fassbender and Mulligan, but even before McQueen stages a key scene between them with a cartoon running in the background, it’s clear that they’re as needy and vulnerable as children. An extended close-up of Mulligan crooning a mesmerizingly sad rendition of “New York, New York” lays bare their ill-fated attempts to find another life. McQueen is a showy director, but his bravura long takes have the effect of heightened attentiveness, allowing scenes to build in intensity without the relief of a cut. What comes through isn’t the lookie-me direction, but a prevailing sense of Fassbender’s panic, distractedness, and intense self-loathing, all revealed through the camera’s unblinking eye. Where the character lacks dimension, it may be because he’s long been a slave to his addiction.