Michael Fassbender's mesmerizing, anguished performance of sex-addict Brandon Sullivan is the focal point in Steve McQueen's raw and riveting drama Shame, a film about a 30-something New Yorker whose success on the surface (good job, handsome, nice apartment, runs in attractive circles) stands in stark contrast to his turmoiling inner life. His constant need for new conquests and fleeting sexual relations has drained him of any love or joy he may have been able to feel in the past, and he is now a prisoner of his own empty, repetitive routine. Fassbender's complete and brave work as the involuntarily seductive and tormented Brandon brings associations to other similar and equally masterful performances such as Marlon Brando's Paul from Last Tango in Paris and Christian Bale's Patrick Bateman from American Psycho. What these three performances have in common is the actors' complete lack of vanity despite the fact that their characters all strive to keep up appearances. This contradiction in terms, combined with the directors' perpetual scrutiny to get below their skin, and the actors' ability to go as deep into their characters as is possibly imaginable, makes each of these three performances among the very best in film history.
What such a performance also does, however, is to become so onerous that it may affect the entire effect of the movie. In Shame, director McQueen's ambition is fortunately quite concentrated on the portrayal of Brandon and his problems, and - as it turns out - his female mirror image in the shape of his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan). Where Brandon is constantly chasing physical gratification, Sissy is constantly seeking (or rather demanding) intimacy and acceptance. Brandon's way of life wears himself down, Sissy's drains the lives of those around her. And so when Sissy suddenly shows up in Brandon's apartment, with nowhere else to go, they both start dragging each other further down an already well-established downward spiral. A spiral which seems to go all the way back to their childhood.
Shame is no joyride. It demands a lot from you and gives little back on a traditional, explicit level. But then again, this is not McQueen's intention. He's out to rock your emotions, and not in a cheap morally shocking way (as one could suspect, bearing in mind the film's subject matter) or through being inaccessibly artistic. The key is the consistent authenticity in the portrayal of these characters and the strained, complex interpersonal situations they find themselves in. Neither Brandon nor Sissy are unsympathetic people, but they have trapped themselves in a largely unsympathetic lifestyle of morally dubious actions which they both struggle to draw meaning and goodness from.
McQueen directs with an unyielding faith in his project. He sticks the camera in Fassbender's face, and pulls him through a series of humilations and almost unbearable ordeals, but he never conceals his many obvious qualities and good sides, and these are what we and Brandon together cling onto, hoping that they will prevail in the end. Shame is a challenging and merciless film, but it's never misanthropic, never pointing fingers and never overanalytical. The analysis is left to you, and Brandon can be hated, admired - or given a second chance.