Movies about addiction of any kind often avoid the risk of not taking the subject seriously enough by taking the subject far too seriously. That’s the main problem facing Shame, an often-compelling character study from co-writer/director Steve McQueen (Hunger) that wrenches every ounce of sturm und drang out of its down-and-dirty.
The story follows a New Yorker named Brandon (Michael Fassbender) who seems to be living a classy, albeit solitary life. But secretly, he’s a guy whose sex addiction insinuates itself into his life in a variety of ways. He masturbates compulsively to Internet porn; he has anonymous sex with a variety of women; he may have the only remaining stockpile of actual hard-copy (no pun intended) skin magazines left in the Western world. Only when he tries to have an actual romantic date does it begin to dawn on Brandon that he might have a problem
McQueen is never overt about the specific causes for Brandon’s psychology, using his relationship with his equally but differently screwed-up sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), to hint at some deeply rooted issues. There are terrific individual moments, including Sissy’s slow, mournful performance of “New York, New York” which is as inexplicably emotional for a viewer as it appears to be for Brandon, and a mesmerizing run through the streets of New York that provides a vivid sense of place.
But McQueen faces the same familiar structure that accompanies most narratives of addition—the setup, the bottoming out, the tentative steps at self-help, the relapse—that even Fassbender’s intense performance can’t bypass. By the time Shame reaches its crescendo of degradation in a montage of absurdly over-the-top anguish, Brandon no longer connects as an average guy with an emotionally damaging problem. If you’re trying to make sex addiction seem as serious as drug addiction, there has to be a better way than turning it into an opera.
Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan