Brandon is a sex addict. This may sound like a set-up for juvenile joking — “What man isn’t?” — but the new drama “Shame” contains not an ounce of smirk. Its cinematic cousins are not T&A comedies but other dramas about addiction and how it sucks all the joy out of people’s lives.
The irony for Brandon is that one of the most beautiful, pleasurable experiences in human existence is the source of his pain. For him, the thrill of sexual intercourse plays like a dirge — assisted by the film’s dour, almost numbing musical score by Harry Escott.
German-born actor Michael Fassbender, best known to American audiences for playing young Magneto in last summer’s “X-Men” reboot, gives a harrowing and haunting performance as Brandon. It’s a revealing portrait, both physically — the film’s unabashed nudity and sex scenes earned an NC-17 rating — and at its emotional core.
There’s one amazing scene where we see Brandon engaged in vigorous sex with two prostitutes, and Fassbender shows us that the fleeting satisfaction of his physical urges only saps his soul.
Brandon lives alone in a fabulous Manhattan apartment and works at an upscale ad agency where the boss (James Badge Dale) is a walking sexual harassment lawsuit waiting to happen. Brandon is more circumspect about his desires, though, surreptitiously watching porn on his office computer and masturbating in the men’s restroom.
He also takes care to avoid becoming the office lothario, generally shying away from the women he works with until Marianne (Nicole Beharie) sidles up to him one day and makes her attraction clear. The sequence of their brief courtship is perhaps the most difficult thing to watch in the movie; Brandon, presented with a woman of genuine wit and soul and charming awkwardness, struggles to relate. It’s like a shark trying to go vegetarian.
It becomes clear exactly how alone Brandon is when his sister Sissy arrives unannounced and begs him to let her crash there. Their meeting is revealing: He catches her naked in the bath, thinking a burglar has broken in, and Sissy makes little attempt to cover herself up.
The suggestion that Brandon’s obsession has touched even this sibling relationship is like a shadow that lingers over the entire movie.
Sissy is played by Carey Mulligan, in a tender, brittle performance that underlines her status as one of the best actresses of her young generation. The scene where she sings a sad, slow rendition of “New York, New York” at a nightclub while Brandon tearfully looks on is genuinely touching.
Director Steve McQueen (no relation to the screen legend), who co-wrote the screenplay with Abi Morgan, paints an unflattering picture of sexual obsession. However, the sex scenes are clearly designed to be titillating — with the exception of Brandon’s foray into a gay club when his addiction reaches its nadir. (I don’t think McQueen is attempting to portray homosexuality as ugly, just a sick straight man who will do anything for sex even if he doesn’t enjoy it.)
“Shame” isn’t a great movie, but quite a good one showcasing an amazing performance by Fassbender that should have gotten attention from the Academy Awards.