Uncompromising is a word that can be used to describe the films of director Steve McQueen. His first film Hunger was about Irish republican Bobby Sands who led inmates on a hunger strike in Northern Ireland. That film like Shame also starred Michael Fassbender (Inglorious Basterds, 300). McQueen and Fassbender seem to be forming a DiCaprio/Scorsese partnership. They also have a third film, Twelve Years a Slave, in pre-production right now. I expect this third film about a man in the 1800s from the North being captured and then sold into slavery in the Deep South to be as brave and riveting as everything these two have done together.
Living in the immense and hugely populated New York City, Brandon (Michael Fassbender) is able to keep his sex addiction hidden in the shadows. He is obviously highly successful at whatever he does (the film is never clear about it) as he has a great centrally located apartment, nice clothes and no money worries. This is despite the fact that his sexual addiction takes up much of his time. When he is not picking up women in bars or paying prostitutes to come over he is watching all sorts of pornography, leering at women on the subway or masturbating in his shower or even in the bathroom at work. Though he has been careful his addiction is now threatening to come bursting through the cracks.
Coincidentally when things are getting tougher for him is when his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan – An Education, Drive) arrives to stay at his place for what she promises to be just a few days. Sissy claims to have nowhere else to go. Despite the fact that they are family, Brandon does not seem especially happy to see his sister and even less happy that she insists on staying with him.
On a night where Brandon brings his boss David (James Badge Dale – The Departed, The Grey) to a club to see Sissy sing and David, who is married with children, and Sissy end up sleeping together in short order, you begin to realize that Brandon is not the only member of his family with an intimacy problem. Sissy craves it. She wants desperately to be loved. By anyone. You begin to wonder what type of household produced these two broken people. And how long it will take for something to erupt between brother and sister.
To say that Michael Fassbender’s turn as this broken, sex addict is brave is an understatement. He is fearless in his portrayal of Brandon going to the wall for his character. Within thirty seconds you get to see all that God has given Fassbender and it is not the last time you see a full frontal of the actor. He is nude as often as he wears clothes in the film. There is an interesting juxtaposition going on of the wonderfully stylish clothes he wears and the nudity. Despite the fact that he is a successful and attractive man you see the isolation as Fassbender makes it palpable. Though he is doing well in his career his private life is a wreck. He often looks haunted and does things that make the viewer ill at ease.
Is it his family life, which is hinted at as being less than ideal, or the trappings of the 21st century that have made him this way? The great thing about the film is that it does not talk down to the viewer. Things are not explained to within an inch of its life. Much is left up to the audience to interpret or figure out. Even dialogue is kept to a minimum. The opening almost 10 minute wordless sequence is a perfect example of this. A film expecting intelligence of anyone watching it. Refreshing!
In her few scenes in a supporting role, Carey Mulligan once again demonstrates her talents as an actor. There is one stunning single shot, close up of her singing “New York, New York” (a song I would be content to never hear again in my life) that is transfixing. Mulligan’s Sissy is the complete opposite of the privacy seeking Brandon. She is restless, open and wants to connect with other humans. Her insertion into Brandon’s life breaks it right open. She forces her brother to face what he is and what his life is like. And as a result he hits rock bottom. The self-loathing becomes apparent and Fassbender does this all with just a look on his face or body language. Despite the fact that he doesn’t say much doesn’t mean that he is not communicating what his character is going through. It is not just because of his full frontal nudity that you cannot take your eyes off Fassbender.