Shame opens with Brandon (Michael Fassbender) curled up in bed. Sounds can be heard all around him, life is happening somewhere in the vicinity, but Brandon remains lurched in the fetal position. Brooding string music plays. There's something not quite right, and that "not quite right" is the catalyst of the film. The "not quite right" is what vaults Shame from interesting premise to outstanding character study.
Brandon is a sex addict. He's into porn, prostitutes, sex clubs, you name it, he's at least tried it. He's the predator on the subway staring at women, he's the suave guy at the bar chatting up the ladies. Brandon gives off a vibe, and it's a vibe that his conquests find irresistible. But all of his hookups leave him completely unfulfilled, because he lacks a connection with anyone or anything, bed-hopping from one tryst to the next. His insatiable need for carnal pleasure leaves him feeling completely detached, or perhaps it's because he's completely detached that he attempts to find emotional connection in the physical world. Whatever the case, his addiction has become a blight upon his life as he's trapped and defined by sex.
Enter Carey Mulligan as his sister. To say they have a strange relationship would be an understatement. It's at once far more violent and far more physically intimate than you'd expect an adult brother-sister relationship to be. Mulligan (as Sissy) is another lost soul, which sheds a bit of light on the family dynamics and the horror show they must have come from. But where Mulligan wears a false bravado and sultry sexiness, Fassbender is strong, silent, and seemingly confident. That this stolid exterior hides such a lost soul is the journey of Shame, and it's a journey worth taking.
What Shame excels at is organic and vibrant long takes. Director Steve McQueen shows extreme patience with this story, rare in our frenetic culture, and he gets tremendous performances out of his leads. Many minutes into a scene, and without any major camera movement, Mulligan and Fassbender reveal parts of themselves that provide clarity to the audience. It's really quite something to see a filmmaker evolving into an auteur right before your eyes, and McQueen is certainly a talent on the rise. The pacing is also crisp and crackling with tension. Each moment shields a potential explosion, underneath the calm surface a battle for composure and meaning roils.
Shame is not an easy watch, but it is simply rippling with emerging talent. Both Fassbender and Mulligan are as good as they can be, and it's a tribute to McQueen's steady directorial hand that he's able to evoke such exceptional performances. A rare misstep comes halfway through the film when Mulligan's character hauntingly sings "New York, New York." For about two minutes it is an amazing scene, but the longer the song goes the more uncomfortable it gets, suffocating the built-up momentum. The film as a whole is quite the opposite of that musical number; the more time you've had to sit and ponder Shame, the more deeply it will impress you, weaving itself into your consciousness, string music playing in the background.