Michael Fassbender stars as Brandon, a 30-something yuppie with a one-bedroom apartment and a job where he works in a cubicle. None of this matters, though. Brandon’s life is about sex. He masturbates in the company restroom, uses his computer only for porn, and orders escorts on a frequent basis. Brandon doesn’t have to; he’s good-looking and has an easy way with women. But there’s something about the rush and the naughty, the illegal and the unknown that drives him further into sexual addiction. At every turn and every orgasm, Brandon is not happy. It’s evident in Fassbender’s face — wrinkles of agony and defeat in the midst of ecstasy.
Brandon’s life and addiction — previously undisturbed and hidden — receive a jolt when Sissy, his wayward sister appears. Sissy never confronts or berates Brandon for his addiction, but her presence is a constant reminder of the norm, a woman he legitimately cares about and loves. Through an obvious use of clothes and color, McQueen depicts Sissy as the light to Brandon’s darkness. And it’s this dichotomy that forces our lead character further onto the edge, into the abyss of his cycle.
The heart of Shame, with all its empathetic misery and despair, lies with Fassbender. Brave is not a word I throw around haphazardly, especially for an actor. But there’s no other way to describe Fassbender’s performance. I doubt there are more than five actors (with his stature) that would take on a role like this. With its NC-17 rating, Shame and Fassbender are not only physically uncensored; their emotions are naked with their bodies. He’s one minute mysteriously stone-faced and the next, devilishly grinning. But through it all, his emotions are raw and haunting, easily ranking as one of the best performances of the year.
Carey Mulligan’s Sissy must not be overlooked, however. She plays her role to perfection, exemplifying a woman who at once is trying to save Brandon and crying out for a savior herself. In one scene, we see the profiles of the siblings, with Brandon verbally abusing Sissy. And while Mulligan doesn’t say a word, we see the glimpse of a tear from her (unseen) cheek slip down her neck, her anguish bare for all.
With strong leads in Fassbender and Mulligan, McQueen knows when to pull back to let the scene breathe, and he knows when to push the scene to its limits. Shame plays like an epic symphony, separated by slow tension and the rushing thump of the mischievious. And at the end, we’re left spent and confused, not knowing what happens next or how we got there in the first place. Shame is an unbearable film to watch. But if you have the stomach for it, it’s a must-see.