Despite the impression you may have gotten strolling some of the Internet's more giggly avenues, the most riveting part of Michael Fassbender's anatomy in Shame is his face. He plays a man who is both addicted to sex and disgusted with himself for being addicted to sex, and that awful combination of ugly feelings is visible in his haunted eyes and grim-set mouth. At what might be called the emotional climax of the movie, Fassbender looks about as tormented and miserable as I've ever seen a person.
The movie that contains Fassbender's performance -- directed by his Hunger collaborator Steve McQueen and written by McQueen and Abi Morgan -- isn't quite as smashing as the performance itself. As an examination of addiction and self-loathing, the film is so simple it borders on superficiality. It shows us one man's journey without offering any insight about it. Also, McQueen's fondness for long, unbroken takes is effective when he's giving us an unflinching look at what makes the character tick; less so when the scene is merely an awkward dinner constantly being interrupted by an incompetent waiter.
But wow, that performance! Fassbender plays Brandon Sullivan, an upscale Manhattanite who earns a good salary in his unspecified white-collar career and can afford a swanky apartment and all the hookers he can hire. (He frequently reminded me of Patrick Bateman in American Psycho.) Brandon's libido is dangerously out of control, to the point where a near-encounter with a pretty woman on the subway requires him to take a moment of "alone" time in the restroom when he gets to work. He's worried his boss, David (James Badge Dale), a horndog in the more traditional fashion, will discover what websites he's been visiting on his work computer. Evenings are occupied by online pornography, more alone time, and hopefully a liaison with whatever willing female he can locate. Brandon's life doesn't look appealing; it looks exhausting. He's clearly not enjoying it either.
This unsustainable way of living is made more precarious by the arrival of Brandon's sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), an reckless bohemian who's as smilingly extroverted as Brandon is withdrawn and sullen. I need not tell you how an unexpected houseguest puts a cramp in one's style; you can imagine how much worse it is when one's style is as lascivious as Brandon's. Sissy is screwed-up in her own ways, sexually and psychologically, and the few clues we get about her and Brandon's upbringing suggest that we are witnessing a sequel to what must have been a harrowing first 20 years. Our best glimpse into Sissy's mind comes at a posh nightclub, where she sings a discordant, melancholy rendition of the normally upbeat "New York, New York," turning its hopeful lyrics ("If I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere") into a forlorn assessment of broken dreams. Notably, her brother is moved by the performance. He can relate.
Sissy's reappearance in his life is what forces Brandon to face his issues directly, but it was clearly only a matter of time before the bottom would fall out anyway. Fassbender, without a trace of self-consciousness to get in his way, brutally conveys the character's pain and frustration without resorting to big, showy acting. Look at him in the moments when nothing seems to be happening: This guy hates himself. As Brandon tries to go on a normal date with a normal woman (a co-worker, played by Nicole Beharie); as he struggles to keep his addictions hidden from his colleagues; and as he veers between resolve and weakness, viewers are reminded of their own shortcomings, their own tendencies toward self-destructive behavior. Most of us haven't dealt with this specific compulsion (knock on wood), but we all know what shame feels like.