Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender) is an intensely unhappy man. He spends his days in his searching for porn on his office computer and nights with a bevy of women (Elizabeth Masucci, Calamity Chang, DeeDee Luxe, Hannah Ware, Charisse Merman) he picks up in bars and clubs, or pays for (either in person or online).
Brandon is addicted to sex to such an extent that he’s unable to emotionally deal with any woman he might have something more than physical relationship with, including an alluring co-worker (Nicole Beharie). His only real friend is his boss who goes out with him at night as his wingman, looking for women to cheat on his wife with.
From the outside looking in everything looks fine, but when his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan), who has a host of her own problems, shows up unannounced to stay on his couch he’s forced to take a good hard look at himself as his world quickly starts to unravel.
The script by director Steve McQueen and Abi Morgan is a character study of a man without a single healthy relationship who has lost himself in pornography and empty physical pleasures. Although he gets some joy out of these experiences he’s slowly moving further and further away from any real happiness. For him, the brief sexually explicit conversation with the girl at the bar (Anna Rose Hopkins) or flirtatious exchanges with a mysterious woman on the subway (Lucy Walters) is all there is.
Those put off by films with a good deal of nudity and sex should probably give Shame a wide berth. The film certainly doesn’t run from its subject matter which is why it has earned a dreaded NC-17 rating. That means Shame is going to be hard to as many of the larger theater chains won’t carry an NC-17 Rated film in their theaters. And that, pardon the pun, is a real shame.
Although the film never offers an explanation for Brandon and Sissy’s behavior, it’s obvious the brother and sister are both emotionally damaged, and have been for quite some time. Whether there some sexual abuse in their childhood, or just the wrong mix of genetics and upbringing, it’s clear that although both of them can pass for normal when they want to, neither of them is living a healthy life.
Although there are small supporting roles, mostly from the bevy of beauties that Brandon has some form of sexual contact with, Shame is really a two-man piece. Fassbender carries the film of a deeply conflicted individual who has grown used to keep his emotions bottled up but now finds them bubbling, uncontrollably, to the surface.
It’s obvious Brandon enjoys the thrill his addiction is giving him in the short term, but it’s also clear that he’s deeply ashamed of the behavior when its mentioned by either his boss or sister. Although he would like to change, it’s unclear given his current circumstances (which include discussing having sex with a woman in front of her burly boyfriend) that he’s on a dangerous path that can only end badly.
Mulligan is a great compliment, showcasing Sissy’s vulnerability as well as her vocal talent in a performance of “New York, New York” which elicits the first honest emotion from Fassbender’s character that we see on-screen. Sissy obviously loves her brother and wants to be closer to him, but her ability to see Brandon’s flaws scares him more than he’s willing to admit.
After an emotional roller coaster, the story ends with Brandon right back to where he started, on the subway with the temptation of the mysterious woman. Has anything changed? Has Brandon turned a corner? Or will he chase her again when the subway stops, this time catching her and earning another strictly physical encounter that helps feed his addiction? That’s left for us to decide.
Shame certainly isn’t a film for everyone (and I’ll admit it showed me far more of Michael Fassbender than I needed to see in several scenes), but it’s an engaging character study that refuses to give the audience easy answers or cliched endings.