2011 was a good year for Irish-German actor Michael Fassbender, who in addition to starring in blockbuster films like “X-Men: First Class” and the critically acclaimed adaptation of “Jane Eyre,” finally snagged a role that was able to coax out his best performance yet.
“Shame” is a ruthless exploration of sex addiction, denial of intimacy and its many consequences all set against the backdrop of a beautifully edited soundtrack. Director Steve McQueen’s second directorial outing has garnered radiant reviews and multiple awards and nominations from around the world, making it a possible candidate for the upcoming Academy Awards, particularly for Fassbender as Best Actor.
Brandon (Michael Fassbender) is a thirty-something upper-class New Yorker who leads a quiet and pristine life. His spotless apartment and meticulous daily routine calls to mind Patrick Bateman of “American Psycho.” Like Bateman, Brandon has a poisonous dark secret; unlike Bateman, Brandon’s darkness is his unbelievably active and insatiable sex drive. He leads a cold and isolated existence for the sole purpose of satisfying his sexual needs, from picking up women, paying for prostitutes, chatting on porn sites to copious amounts of masturbation and sex at his apartment, hotel rooms and at work. Brandon’s addiction renders him incapable of forming any sort of romantic relationship, and his urges are so frequent that it’s nearly impossible for him to keep company around.
Brandon’s orderly life is ruined by the appearance of his younger sister Sissy, portrayed brilliantly by Carey Mulligan, who dumps herself, literally, on Brandon’s couch and refuses to leave. It soon becomes clear that Sissy has some deeply-seeded issues herself and she serves as the mirror opposite of her controlled and restrained brother. One of the greatest moments of the film comes from the silent exchange between the strained siblings as Brandon hears Sissy sing her slow rendition of “New York, New York.” What added to the heart wrenching scene was McQueen’s insistence on filming Mulligan singing the song live and in one take, drawing out the confrontation and adding to the slow-building momentum of the film.
Sissy’s overwhelming neediness and hunger for emotional connection with her brother is sharply contrasted by the increasingly frustrated and frazzled Brandon who finds it harder and harder to hide his ferocious addiction. There are moments where Brandon and Sissy engage in moments of inappropriateness, but their actions are often a direct reflection of just how fractured and helpless they both are. As Sissy climatically states, “We’re not bad people, we just come from a very bad place,” we get the one and only glimpse into what could have caused Brandon and Sissy’s deep psychological scars.
Far from being pornographic, the NC-17 explicitness of “Shame” examines, quite frankly, the type of desperate, empty sex that tortured individuals engage in to escape their total lack of connection with emotions normally present in intimate relationships. Brandon doesn’t look for passion or compatibility—he seeks whatever will give him a quick fix, much like a heroin addict. Sissy, on the other hand, displays a total lack of propriety and leeches on to the nearest person who’s even slightly available so that she doesn’t have to be alone.
It was a welcomed surprise to see Mulligan break out of her mold and nab a role that illuminates her versatility and potential as an actress. Fassbender and Mulligan most certainly gave the best performances of the year—their raw intensity and fearlessness of emotional and physical exposure coupled with McQueen’s unflinching and unforgiving approach to the dark side of human need made “Shame” a truly unforgettable film.