For the first few seconds of Shame, Michael Fassbender looks dead. His body fills the frame in a very awkward way—stuffed up at the top of the screen, lying sideways across it, in bed. His skin is pale, and he's naked, and the sheets are wrinkled oddly around his crotch, as though he'd been struggling and kicking madly and then suddenly found himself at peace, one way or another. But then you notice he's breathing, and he blinks, and then he climbs out of the bed and opens the blinds somewhere offscreen, and then harsh light gets in everywhere, unprettily. It's morning, and he's planning to do some horrible things to other people, and to himself.
Much critical ink will be spilled on the sexual content of Shame. During the first third of the film, Fassbender's penis makes frequent appearances. We're not sure if the character he's playing, Brandon Sullivan, is a sex addict or not, but he sure does have sex—and masturbate, and fritter time away watching pornography—a whole lot. The first time we meet his younger sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan, seemingly infallible at this early point in her acting career), she's naked, too. To ignore the sexuality of Shame would be disingenuous—this is a hard NC-17 movie, after all—but to focus too much on the sex would be doing the film a disservice. And an especially unfortunate disservice, because thinking too much about sex is exactly Brandon's problem.
Brandon Sullivan shares a branch of the cinematic family tree with Christian Bale's Patrick Bateman in American Psycho. They're both neat-freaks who live in palatial apartments somewhere near the top of the New York skyline, they both work in glass-walled offices doing some kind of indeterminate (but very obviously lucrative) work involving clients and meetings and douchey young men in suits, and they both are losing control over their tightly managed lives.
But unlike Bateman, Brandon has just enough of a soul to know self-loathing, and every orgasm is twinned with a deep-seated, almost spiritual shame. (This might be the last non-period-piece movie to feature a scene where the main character throws out his pornography collection—lurid DVD cases, glossy pages featuring lovingly rendered photographs of anuses—with disgust.) Maybe his soul is externalized in Sissy, who appears to be the only family he's got. He's repulsed by Sissy's airy irresponsibility—Mulligan's aching, manic performance suggests Sissy and Brandon share the same rotten roots—but he feels a certain kind of tenderness for her, too. He allows her messy whirlwind of a life into his spotless, well-appointed apartment when she has nowhere to go, and you get the sense that she's the only person in the world who can bring out real emotions in Brandon, except for Brandon himself.
Fassbender's performance is astonishing, and McQueen's direction confidently puts the viewer inside Brandon's discomfort zone; the close-ups are too close, the awkward date scenes stretch on for too long. Shame isn't long on plot—it's more of a character sketch. When the time comes for a resolution, the story lands a bit too precisely on the side of drama for drama's sake. But that's beside the point; Shame is excellent filmmaking about something movies don't often discuss—the weird dance between attraction and release and disgust that powers the world in which we all live.