Michael Fassbender’s portrayal of Brandon, the rootless Manhattan sex addict in Steve McQueen’s Shame (Fox Searchlight), may lay claim to this year’s title of most outstanding performance in a mediocre movie. This sleek-looking but curiously unfocused character study never quite gets down to the business of showing us who Brandon is, but boy, does Fassbender make him into a captivating enigma. It’s one of those performances that singlehandedly elevates the movie it’s in.
That’s not to say that Shame without Fassbender wouldn’t be worth watching. McQueen has a keen visual eye and a way with actors—not just Fassbender but also Carey Mulligan, who plays Brandon’s calamity-prone younger sister Sissy. Mulligan, with her sweet, childlike features, has rarely gotten the chance to play anyone with an edge, and she’s brave enough to let Sissy come off as needy and a little grating. Then again, who wouldn’t seem needy to Brandon, an aloof, contemptuous man who lives alone in a starkly furnished high-rise and has never sustained a relationship for longer than four months, with a norm of something closer to four hours?
As we meet Brandon for the first time, he’s naked in bed—a state we’ll find him in throughout this NC-17-rated movie, usually with company. But in the opening scene, Brandon is alone: He wakes up, looks out for a minute at the bleak view (gazing at bleak views being his second-favorite hobby), then heads for the subway. A normal enough morning, one might think—but it’s soon clear there’s nothing normal about Brandon. At work, he clogs his work computer with porn, half-convincing his boss (James Badge Dale) that it’s the result of a spam virus. He masturbates in the office men’s room, then compulsively seeks out women for sex: in bars and clubs, yes, but also through escort services, at work, and, in a recurring motif, on the subway. (Maybe I live in a different New York than this movie is set in, but are there really that many beautiful, nicely dressed, apparently sane women willing to risk their lives by going home with a random dude from the subway, even if he does look like Michael Fassbender?)
Brandon has settled into a joyless but comfortable rut of—well, rutting. But he’s forced to confront the kind of emotional entanglement he spends his days avoiding when he gets home to find his sister in the shower (those of you wondering what Carey Mulligan looks like naked, your cup runneth over.) Sissy is on the run from a bad romantic situation of unspecified nature: She calls a former lover on the phone every once in a while and leaves long, desperate messages that are never returned (just as she did with her brother before showing up at his place—there’s a low crackle of incestuous energy between the siblings that the movie never investigates).
Shame has everything in place to be a really interesting movie, but I found my attention drifting as a grim-faced Brandon prowled the streets yet again in search of willing flesh. This great-looking film, shot in a palette of chilly blues and greens, suffers from a surfeit of stylish blankness. But when Fassbender is given actual dramatic material to work with, he can be frighteningly good. There’s a bar scene in which, after nearly dirty-talking a woman into leaving with him, Brandon casually taunts her boyfriend into beating him up, his usually impassive face lit up with an almost demonic glee.
Who is this man, and why does he feel compelled to seek out these experiences? Those would seem to be the basic questions posed by Shame, which is, at heart, a psychological case study of sorts. But McQueen’s file on his patient is too thin. “We’re not bad people, we just come from a bad place,” Sissy tells her brother urgently in one late scene. What place? (OK, we do learn they’re from New Jersey, but that can only account for so much trauma.) I’m not asking for a dissolve to a childhood flashback here—I’d just like a little context about these troubled characters’ pasts or, for that matter, their presents. What exactly is Brandon’s high-earning office job? When Sissy tearfully insists that she has “nowhere else to go,” how are we to picture what her living situation was before the movie started?
Like the recent Martha Marcy May Marlene, Shame isn’t above using narrative opaqueness as a cover for not really knowing what it’s trying to say. The magic trick Fassbender pulls off is to fill in the script’s blanks with a fully imagined performance: His Brandon is at once a miserable prick and a struggling, suffering person worthy of our attention and care. The movie wants us to imagine its anguished antihero at a moral and spiritual crossroads, but the landscape this film traverses is so featureless, it’s impossible to tell when, or whether, he makes it to the other side.