“We’re not bad people. We just come from a bad place.”
“Shame”, Steve McQueen’s stark and uncompromising exploration of the devastating effects of sex addiction, is a powerful glimpse into the dark parts of the human soul and how it can consume us. It stars Michael Fassbender as Brandon, viewed by his colleagues as a polite, well-kept business professional, who is secretly struggling with a sex addiction that causes him to seek out sexual release through either girls he meets at bars, escorts or masturbation, often in public bathrooms. In essence he lives in his own erotic world, though the sex is not for pleasure but simply to help block out some deep-seeded pain, which he tries to control with daily routines to keep focus. This world is disrupted when Sissy, his wayward sister with no other place to go, arrives and requests a place to stay. Brandon reluctantly agrees which appeared to be one of a few attempts to change his habits; the other being starting a real relationship with a beautiful young coworker. Things seem to be going well, but Sissy’s intrusive and erratic behavior, though often not intentional, quickly disrupts the rituals that held his psyche together and he begins to break. Her presence makes him feel constricted and bring back those feelings and memories he seemed dead set to repress with his sexual behavior, causing him to spiral downward with his sexual exploits becoming more extreme as the resurgence of his past and inability to cope with her needs boil to the surface.
It is important to understand, because the story relies so heavily on their interactions, that Sissy and Brandon share similar pains, though they go about suppressing them in different ways. Sissy is outgoing and wants everyone to love her; whereas Brandon is reserved and prefers to be on his own. When “living” becomes too hard they give in to harmful behavior. For Brandon it is sexual stimulation and for Sissy it is cutting herself, as pointed out by Brandon’s coworker after noticing her scarred wrist. It is this conflict in their personalities that creates the most drama. They are not suited for one another, Sissy’s intruding in Brandon’s sheltered existence and Brandon’s refusing to give her the attention and love she needs are the sparks that lead to destruction. It is not long before their clashing reaches an unbearable limit and they are both so terribly damaged, and heartbreakingly so, that when they both hit bottom it is a tragic moment. Especially for Brandon who finds himself under the pain of both the shame he places upon himself and his sister.
McQueen plays coy on what exactly about their past has had this effect on them but clearly there is a lot under the surface that has left them scarred. Many have complained about this lack of back story or an outright explanation to Brandon’s behavior but McQueen is less interested in a thoroughly develop story, and more concerned with peeking into the lives of these individuals. This is honestly all we need. It is sometimes too hard for people to accept that this is just the way we are. Humans have their demons. Films have already thoroughly gone through the scenarios that could lead to this behavior. All that matters is the now, how technology and New York help him to indulge in his addiction, and how he copes with the present.
As Brandon Michael Fassbender gives one of the most haunting and courageous performances in a very long time. His willingness to bear all, in scenes the audience can barely sit through let along imagine being a part of, along with his ability to open himself up physically and emotionally and relay so much pain, in a way that feels so human, was just outstanding.
Carey Mulligan also shines here in a roll that is unlike anything she has ever done. She plays Sissy as a woman who clearly has her own demons, and although she might seem more outgoing and capable or connecting with others, she also has a hard time coping with the past and the rejection of lovers and her brother. One of the film’s most stunning moments comes when Mulligan, in a close up, sings ‘New York New York’ in a powerful, raw and emotional rendition that really mirrored her whole performance.
The result of it all is a dark and unsettling portrait of self-destructive souls, driven by some unknown torment, so lost and damaged, struggling to mask one great shame with another in an attempt to feel something; not pleasure but rather the physical and moral pains of the acts they commit. Alone this is challenging stuff, but with the addition of exquisite long shots, beautiful photography adding a sort of poetic grace all set to a hypnotic score by Harry Escott, it becomes not only an emotional but also visually mesmerizing experience.