With a remarkably strong performance from Michael Fassbender and a comparatively good performance from Carey Mulligan, Shame remains a film indebted to its setting. Amid the carnality and decries of modern living, director Steve McQueen and cowriter Abi Morgan utilize New York City to great effect, whereupon the urban setting serves to underline the moral distress of its narrative framework. And what distress we find! Shame may exercise its share of excess miserablism, particularly toward its final act, but for most of its runtime, it walks a very precise line. This precision is what one can expect from McQueen, whose previous film, Hunger, flourished for its meticulous detail and brazen brutality. Similarly, Shame’s formal filmmaking qualities elevate the material to a level of realism that can become incredibly haunting.
Films about addiction tend to relish in the cerebral affects of the user. Shame’s topic of addiction is far more outwardly present and therein motivates a more concentrated look onto its subject: Brandon (Michael Fassbender) is a sex addict. McQueen avoids placing the camera on Fassbender for long periods of time as we are introduced to the character. Instead, he focuses on the sounds and images of his daily routine, as the morning after his sexual endeavors tend to include the sound of shades opening, the image of an unmade bed, and the reminder that there is one woman out there who means anything to Brandon. That woman is Sissy (Carey Mulligan), Brandon’s sister, who will be staying in his apartment for an undisclosed amount of time.
While initially appearing to be a plot device, Sissy’s role in the film unfolds as more than just an inconvenience to Brandon. If anything, her squatting serves to underline the severity of his condition, as well as establish the role of family to the afflicted. In the film’s several virtuoso scenes, we hear Sissy and Brandon’s boss making love. The sound of their lovemaking forces Brandon out of the apartment, wherein we see an extended take of Brandon running through the streets of New York City. It’s an incredible take, one that utilizes the city as a sort of passageway for Brandon to reconcile his sexual impulses.
McQueen’s less successful in constructing an exit for his narrative framework, relying on a bookending sequence to make the audience question Brandon’s resolve. For what the film had been doing, it’s a far too neat conclusion for such a messy emotional terrain. Despite the misstep, Shame’s affect cannot be denied. It’s a film of elegant formal design and audacious visceral appeal. The film posits many questions and rarely makes the effort to spell things out. These are the way things are, with McQueen, Fassbender, and Mulligan navigating their way through an abyss.