Michael Fassbender has become something of a sex symbol this year. I’ve personally witnessed more than a few ladies (and at least a couple guys) swoon over his rugged good looks and smoldering eyes in movies like “Jane Eyre,” “X-Men: First Class” and “A Dangerous Method,” and for those folks, “Shame” must sound like a gift from heaven. Fassbender naked? A lot? Like, a lot a lot? It’s true, but Fassbenderholics should be careful what they wish for. They’ll get plenty of man candy in “Shame,” but it’s bound to leave a bad taste in their mouths. Is “Shame” sexual? Yes. Is it sexy? Not so much.
Fassbender plays Brandon, a New York City office drone whose stylish clothes and suave pickup moves mask a crushing addiction to sex. Brandon might be able to seduce a woman on the subway with nothing but a look, but behind closed doors he’s a total mess. His house is filled with porn, his office computer is “filthy” with viruses, and he blows actual dates with real women to have sex with prostitutes. Things only get more difficult for Brandon when his needy sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) comes to town for a visit. Brandon avoids and ignores Sissy’s calls for as long as he can, then resents her when she decides to move in with him. The way they argue, wrestle, converse in the shower, hint at possible incest, and suggest that Brandon’s issues and Sissy’s distress have a shared root cause.
But what is that root cause? Some fellow critics I’ve spoken to complain about “Shame”‘s economy of character detail. They’re frustrated by the lack of information about Brandon and Sissy’s lives before the film begins. They want to know why they’re so screwed up. I respectfully disagree. “Shame” is a movie about sex addiction, but it’s also about denial. It’s clear something terrible happened to Brandon and Sissy, but it’s also clear whatever it was inflicted such brutal psychic damage on these siblings that they still haven’t come to grips with it. Why should the movie acknowledge that trauma if the characters themselves can’t?
More importantly, I didn’t miss that backstory because I was so entranced by “Shame”‘s beautiful but unsettling present. Its co-writer and director is Steve McQueen, the creator of “Hunger,” the film that made Fassbender an international star. Though that film was set in an Irish prison, and “Shame” takes place on the streets of New York, it feels no less claustrophobic. Brandon is trapped by the city and its temptations. In one powerful, unbroken shot, Brandon leaves his apartment (at 9 West 31st Street — McQueen’s Manhattan is wonderfully real and very specific) and jogs all the way to Madison Square Garden. But wherever Brandon goes, he can’t outrun his need.
Fassbender bares his body repeatedly in “Shame” but the way he bares his soul is even more impressive. Because McQueen and Abi Morgan’s screenplay offers Brandon so few places to talk about his true feelings, it’s all left to Fassbender to convey with wordless gestures. The only intimate relationship Brandon has with anyone in “Shame” is with McQueen’s camera. Scenes like the one where he stands alone on a pier silently overlooking the Hudson River are where Fassbender truly reveals it all.
“Shame” is the first movie from a major studio in a good long while with the dread NC-17 rating, which prohibits anyone under the age of 17 from paying to see the film and restricts the places where a movie can be advertised and even exhibited. The president of Fox Searchlight, Steve Gilula, said that he saw the NC-17 as “a badge of honor, not a scarlet letter” and I hope he’s right. Though it contains plenty of nudity and sex, “Shame” is not a titillating erotic drama. It’s a serious character study and exploration of addiction, exactly the sort of movie the NC-17 was created to promote instead of restrict. If adults miss it because of a rating, that would be a real shame.