Don’t let the NC-17 rating fool ya.
Sure, director Steve MgQueen’s Shame is full of sex and nudity. Fans of Michael Fassbender gets naked and nasty for scene after scene of graphic sex with a parade of good-looking young women. So the movie earns its scarlet letter.
But this isn’t a movie about sex. It’s a movie about addiction, with a big red “A.”
Fassbender plays Brandon, a successful New York businessman who is constantly on the prowl for some poontang. He can’t even ride the subway in the morning without considering, and then pursuing the willing young woman across the isle. Sometimes he’ll hit the nightclubs with his boss and wingman David (James Badge Dale). That guy lacks Brandon’s skill at closing the deal, to the point where the woman who leaves the bar with David ends in Brandon’s bed by the end of the night.
If he can’t find a willing partner, Brandon’s happy to turn to hookers. And when that doesn’t work his work and home computers are loaded with porn.
Enter Sissy (Carey Mulligan) who is in need of a place to flop. Brandon accommodates his sister and makes a halfhearted effort to hide his obsession from her. But who are they kidding? She’s as hooked on the deed as he is. Soon she’s banging David and anyone else in arms reach.
Just as Brandon approaches true intimacy with Marianne (Nicole Beharie) – an attractive but sweethearted co-worker who hopes for more from Brandon than just a roll in the sheets – soon his barely-together life begins to unravel.
What’s good here is Fassbender’s performance. There’s surely another version of this movie that features Ryan Reynolds and plays as a raunchy comedy. Who wouldn’t want to be rich, attractive, living in Manhattan and getting’ some 24/7? But Fassbender invests Brandon with quietly-building sense of despair. Like any drug, sex for Brandon is barely pleasurable, a bandage on the psychic wounds that seem to plague him.
Also good is McQueen’s mastery of mood over narrative. Watching Brandon engage his need even as his castoffs plead with him through the answering machine create a maddening sense of chaos in Brandon’s seemingly tidy world.
What isn’t good is how McQueen cares so little to delve into his characters’ aforementioned emotional scars. Nor does he aim to offer them anything that looks like salvation. With nowhere to go other than further down you start to wonder what it’s all about.
For all its artistic trappings, high-brow execution, murky themes of addiction, maybe Shame is just a sex movie after all. It just happens to be one where nobody enjoys themselves.