Shame is the second directorial effort by Hunger director Steve Mcqueen and it is his finest effort to date. Shame stars Michael Fassbender as Brandon Sullivan, a New Yorker who lives a comfortable life working for a company in advertising or selling a product. Brandon seems like a nice guy on the surface but the reality of his life is that he has an addiction to sex. Brandon’s sex addiction causes him to be a very cold and distant person. Brandon’s addiction is what he spends most of his money and energy on. It’s his shame so to speak. Brandon’s addiction is interrupted when his sister Sissy comes into town. How Brandon interacts with the world around him and the consequences of the severity of his addiction are explored throughout the film.
Shame is an uneasy film. The subject matter of how someone struggles with sex addiction is something I had never seen in a film. I knew that sex addiction existed purely because it was covered on a specific season of Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew. Having prior knowledge of how sex addiction can affect human beings, I was interested to see where director Steve McQueen and Michael Fassbender would take such a taboo subject. Both Fassbender and McQueen handle the idea of sexual addiction in a frank manner. Fassbender’s Brandon can’t break his need for sex as it is the one thing in his life I feel he thinks he can control. He has guilt and shame about his actions but it never stops him from continually have sex with people or masturbating. I have a very strong feeling that Brandon would love to have a normal relationship with someone he’s interested in, he just feels he isn’t capable of being able to love like a normal person. Shame is both a commentary looking how society treats sex addiction and how someone experiences it on a daily basis.
Throughout Shame I never found myself feeling sympathy for Brandon, instead I found myself doing the best I possibly could to understand why he would do it. Sissy played by Carey Mulligan is just as unhinged and lost in the world as Brandon is and you get the feeling that those two siblings shared some sort of painful past, but to McQueen’s credit as a director and co-writer of this film he does not reveal what tragedy may have fallen upon them. Sissy addiction has nothing to do with sex. Sissy’s addiction is her need to be noticed and cared about. Her world falls apart if someone isn’t actively seeking to care about her. Sissy’s need for attention takes a toll on Brandon throughout most of the film because she takes him away from his addiction. I love the dynamic between Fassbender and Mulligan as it seems their characters understand each other but can’t save each other from their respective addictions.
Shame appeals to me because Steve McQueen uses long takes to allow the audience to really get to know Brandon as a character. In one specific scene, in an effort to rid himself of his sexual addiction Brandon goes on a date with a co-worker. He is clearly uncomfortable on a genuine date but he enjoys himself. We get to explore almost every moment of Brandon’s struggle on this date and his complex emotions shine through because he isn’t in control of this situation he is in. Fassbender shows more in facial expressions than he does in conversational dialogue as Brandon and that’s because the audience can see his anguish. Shame is one of those films where the character doesn’t need a journey and watching them live their life is enough of a fulfilling experience than having something affect them and change who they are.
Shame is a complex film that provides no easy answers to why sex addiction exists and whether there is a cure for it. After watching this film I found out that the explanation isn’t as important as giving this addiction a voice. Steve McQueen has done just done that.