There are many different types of addiction, but one seems to have caused more controversy over the last several years than any other – sex addiction. After well-publicized scandals broke involving Tiger Woods, Jesse James, and Herman Cain, sex addiction became a punchline for late night comedians rather than a genuine medical condition and prompted numerous articles about whether it is real or simply an excuse for men to cheat. Some issues surrounding this controversy may be cleared up by the new narrative film Shame from director Steve McQueen and actor Michael Fassbender.
In his sophomore follow-up to the 2009 film Hunger, British director McQueen continues his investigation into the physical self-destruction of the human body. In Hunger the inmates starve themselves as a form of protest. In the more intimate Shame, we see one man destroy himself in his never ceasing pursuit to fulfill an even more carnal desire. However, Shame presents much more than one man’s struggle with sex addiction. It is a beautifully shot, hyper-realistic examination on what it means to lose control featuring career best performances from the brilliant Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan.
The film opens on our protagonist, Brendan (Fassbender), listlessly staring at the ceiling while lying on tousled sheets. The title of the film fades in rather redundantly because we can see the post-coital shame deep in Brendan’s eyes. We are then introduced to his daily routine: wake-up, masturbate in the shower, go to work, discreetly look at pornography, masturbate during lunch break, leave work, find an anonymous sex partner, fall asleep to more pornography. All this is kept under tight wraps, hidden inside his posh Manhattan apartment and high-profile corporate job.
This routine is disrupted when Brendan’s sister Sissy (Mulligan) shows up at his apartment unannounced and declares she will be temporarily taking up residence. Through their interactions we learn that something substantial occurred in their youth, but we are never explicitly told what has happened; “we’re not bad people, we just come from a bad place,” Sissy says to comfort Brendan. She then becomes both a fuel for his addiction and an impediment to it. Brendan has an infatuation with Sissy that at first seems like the simple over protection of being a big brother, but is revealed to be sexual interest. He tries to satiate his lust with a genuine relationship and becomes both literally and figuratively impotent in one of the more revealing scenes of the film.
Director Steve McQueen got his start as a photographer and video artist and he has already developed a strong visual style for his narrative films. He lets the camera linger on his characters long enough for the audience to gather that something deeper is being suggested, and then keeps holding it until we feel uncomfortable. There is an extended shot of Brendan running through the streets of Manhattan that first seems like a quick way to blow off steam while his boss and sister have a moment in Brendan’s bed. As the camera continues to follow his profile we see in Fassbender’s pacing and face how tortured he is at this very moment.
Fassbender is magnificent as the tortured Brendan with a face that the camera loves to get close to. He masters stillness making it all the more revealing when he cracks a slight smile or casts a dead gaze. The performance is certainly crafted from inside out as we get to see a gradual build of internal torment until he erupts with a frenzied indulgence of his suppressed desires. Carey Mulligan matches Fassbender note for note as the manic-depressive Sissy. Instead of using sex as a pacifier like her brother, she wants acceptance and is willing to compromise herself in any way to get people to love her.
Bottom Line: Shame is an intimate and well-acted look at one of the most controversial addictions.