by Glenn Lovell
Brandon and Sissy are brother and sister. He works for some unspecified Manhattan firm; she’s a torchy supper club singer who has trouble finding and keeping gigs. They’re both single with no prospects on the horizon.
How come? It has something to do with their troubled youth. We’re never told what exactly in Steve McQueen’s striking and provocative “Shame,” but we can speculate about it based on their behavior. It’s disturbing, to say the least. So disturbing that this film has been tagged ‒ deservedly or not ‒ with an NC-17.
Though a ruggedly handsome babe magnet, Brandon (Michael Fassbender of “A Dangerous Method” and “X-Men: First Class”) hides a secret: He’s a hopeless sex addict whose apartment could double as a XXX sex emporium. He masturbates at home to live-cam porno and in the men’s room stall at work. And when he isn’t playing with himself or paying someone to play with him, he’s prowling the club scene ‒ hetero and gay ‒ for no-strings companionship, what Erica Jong once called a “zipless f–k.”
Sissy (the wonderful, misty-eyed Carey Mulligan of “Drive”) has her own demons, as evidenced by the scars on her arms. Her explanation: “As a kid I was bored.” Drawn to relationships that don’t stand a prayer, Sissy cries and beseeches a lot on the telephone. She’s as needy as her brother is remote, cut-off.
“Shame,” a British indie shot on location in New York, follows Brandon from one messy, guilt-ridden encounter to another ‒ his work computer has just been confiscated because, according to his boss, “your hard-drive is filthy.” But the film’s through-line is the sibling relationship. Brandon wants Sissy gone so he can get on with his onanistic existence; she pleads poverty and reminds him of his brotherly responsibility to look after his little sister. The more she reaches out, the more he pushes her away.
“Why are you so f‒king angry?” she demands. Why indeed.
As you should be able to tell by now, this one is not for all tastes. A blend of “Looking for Mr. Goodbar,” the female take on sexual addiction, and Michael Winterbottom’s hardcore “9 Songs,” “Shame” is about as unblinkingly candid as any above-ground film now making the rounds. But don’t let this throw you. It’s not as graphic as its NC-17 rating would suggest (though there is ample full-frontal nudity). The director, who scored earlier with Fassbender in the grim IRA prison movie “Hunger,” is less interested in shocking than in exploring deep familial riffs that have left the main characters unable to sustain committed relationships.
McQueen, a talent to watch and nurture, bookends his story with subway encounters that are worthy of the French master Robert (“Pickpocket”) Bresson. They’re played sans dialogue, just Brandon and two women exchanging furtive glances across a car. Talk about economical filmmaking. The brief opening sequence encapsulates an entire relationship, from first blush to arousal to breakup.
McQueen is abetted in his quest by a small but powerful ensemble and by “Hunger” cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, whose nightclubs and high-rises are every bit as stark and impersonal as their occupants. With only a handful of lines, Fassbender manages to be by turns dashing, crude, insecure, haunted. It’s a brave, soul-baring performances. James Badge Dale as Brandon’s boss is the serial pick-up artist to a T, and Nicole Beharie appears as a co-worker who attempts to rehabilitate Brandon with conventional courtship ‒ dinner date, wine, conversation.
But it’s the heartbreakingly vulnerable Mulligan who makes off with this film and very possibly an Oscar nomination. McQueen, obviously realizing what he has here, trains his camera on the actress for long stretches. Her jazzy, almost five minute rendition of “New York, New York” earns a tear even from her brother. It’s that good.
SHAME ✮✮✮1/2 With Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale, Nicole Beharie. Directed by Steve McQueen; scripted by McQueen and Abi Morgan. 101 min. NC-17 (but should be R for full frontal nudity, profanity, numerous sex scenes)