Sex can be a very damaging thing if it ceases being pleasurable and it becomes compulsion. That is the problem with Brandon (Michael Fassbender) in Shame who must have sex, who must be on the brink of orgasm, just as a junkie must be on the brink of being high. That is his normal, and when he’s in withdrawal he’s miserable. Through Fassbender’s searing performance, we get the impression that Brandon knows this existence is pitiable, but he seems unable to change it and this addiction complicates and sullies his relationships with someone he might actually fall for (Nicole Beharie) because for him sex is completely foreign from love. It also complicates his relationship with his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan), whom he can’t have and thus resents.
Director Steve McQueen wisely avoids pitying Brandon the way he pities himself and in that way we can coldly observe his wretched life while keeping a safe distance. This is a pretty sleazy guy. He works a calculated but effective game to bed women who probably understand they’re not the only ones but might be shocked to find out how many there are. Two sad moments in a film of sad moments stand out, one is at the end of a date with Beharie when Brandon betrays a vulnerability that he usually keeps well hidden and we see what a nice person and good mate he could be, however it’s this vulnerability that leads to the crises that causes him to repress that side even more. Next we see him at rock bottom, desperate for his fix and getting it in an unlikely location, a gay bar. I believe Brandon prefers girls to boys, but the receptacle for his compulsion is of no concern to him. On Fassbender’s face is a look of disgust but satisfaction and then shame because of that satisfaction. It’s heartbreaking.
We later see him more than a few times disregard the feelings of others, even the needs of others, for his own empty wants. It’s these types of actions that result in the films final tragic reaction that I’m not sure that Shame earns but nonetheless reveals the potential for Brandon’s insensitivity. He’s trapped and though he blames it on Sissy at one point, he’s trapped by his own addiction. It’s clear he hates himself and it’s suggested that this self-hatred will turn more and more destructive as it gets worse, not just emotionally as he certainly does push away all those close to him but physically as well. This is not someone to be envied and the film stands as a contrast to the countless male movie heroes who are glorified for having dozens of partners.
Fassbender truly elevates what could be an underwritten and at-times melodramatic script and rewards the otherwise indulgent filmmaking by being endlessly watchable while providing layers to the character and the never-ending storm that rages inside him. He does this mainly with his face and he shows a remarkable range within a short period of time without ever sacrificing believability or appearing over the top. He makes Brandon unlikeable without being totally detestable and he provides his pain as evidence to his condition as well as the cause.
The film is rightly ambiguous about why Brandon is the way he is, which is of no concern to us in the scope of this story and Fassbender’s performance hints at things but never underlines. Shame also intimates that Sissy and Brandon have been through more than they should have been at a young age but that’s left undiscovered too. Just as well. Even Sissy herself is undefined. This bothered me initially but I soon became aware that she is like everything else in Brandon’s life, an accessory to his need, and therefore exists somewhat vaguely.