Starring: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale
Directed by: Steve McQueen (“Hunger”)
Written by: Abi Morgan (“The Iron Lady”) and Steve McQueen (“Hunger”)
Over the span of a year he’s played iconic comic-book villain Magneto in “X-Men: First Class,” classic literary character Mr. Rochester in “Jane Eyre,” and groundbreaking Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung in “A Dangerous Method,” but it still took Michael Fassbender (“Inglourious Basterds”) showing off a little more than his acting ability to get some serious consideration this awards season. Not that Fassbender going full frontal in “Shame” was the only reason he’s received universal acclaim for his portrayal of a New York City sex addict. The role, which Fassbender nails with unflinching confidence, is meaningful to witness. It’s impossible to turn away from it.
While most warm-blooded Americans enjoy sex, clean-cut businessman Brandon Sullivan (Fassbender) craves it like a heroin addict needs a fix. Brandon sleepwalks through each day – going to work, downloading ridiculous amounts of porn, and trolling the city at night for his next female conquest. At times, he doesn’t even have to make much of an effort. One seductive glance at an attractive red head on the subway and she’s practically having an orgasm in her seat. The life Brandon is accustomed to is disturbed when his equally troubled sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) moves into his apartment and triggers painful memories he’s always ignored.
In “Shame,” all those unearthed emotions are exposed brilliantly by both Fassbender and Mulligan, who through their brother/sister relationship demonstrate their lack of boundaries when inhabiting the same space. Director/co-writer Steve McQueen (“Hunger”) skirts the idea of sexual abuse or incest in their past, leaving the audience playing a kind of cinematic shrink.
“We’re not bad people. We just come from a bad place,” Sissy tells her brother during one powerful scene. McQueen and co-writer Abi Morgan (“The Iron Lady”) don’t reveal those nightmarish scenarios she’s referring to, instead focusing on the emotional destruction it has caused. What we’re left to watch is a damaged man whose addiction controls his lifestyle; someone who only finds contentment through physical pleasure. Retreating to a bathroom stall during the workday to masturbate, one might wonder if instead of coming, he should be crying.
Stamped with an NC-17 rating by the MPAA, Shame does have its share of fairly explicit sex scenes all necessary in context. The sex, however, isn’t what should arouse intrigue. Fassbender and Mulligan deliver on each of these complex roles an artful take on the fear of intimacy. Together they explore a taboo subject rarely confronted in film and prove there are more important issues than just what’s happening between the sheets.