Steve McQueen’s second feature reprises his collaboration with Hunger star Michael Fassbender and the effect is no less spellbinding. This time, instead of starving for a cause, Fassbender plays a man at the mercy of his urges rather than in control of them: a sex addict.
In the frenetic world of New York City it’s easy for Fassbender’s Brandon to keep his private life a secret. When a vat of pornography is discovered on his work computer his boss doesn’t even suspect him and automatically blames an intern. Brandon has a corporate job, no friends, no family and an apartment that can only be described as antiseptic. He lives to indulge his fantasies, flirting with strangers on the subway and participating in live-action internet porn. However, McQueen doesn’t regard Brandon as demented or soulless; just the opposite, he seems to be a romantic at heart, just too screwed up to act like one.
Enter Brandon’s sister (Carey Mulligan) appropriately called Sissy, a hot mess of a singer who’s run out of places to stay. Her arrival disrupts everything Brandon has worked to solidify in his life—suddenly his apartment is dirty, his secrets are spilling out, and he’s forced to interact intimately with another human being. Sissy alludes to their shared upbringing (in Ireland, to explain the accents) without ever giving any details, but it’s clear that she’s just as damaged is he is.
She also proves adept at sleeping around and being generally self destructive, which worries Brandon, but not enough to keep him from kicking her out. Several scenes hint at the possibility of incest in Brandon and Sissy’s past and, though this is never fleshed out (and McQueen wouldn’t elaborate during the press conference), there’s a queasiness to their relationship that adds even more tension to the already crackling narrative.
McQueen’s direction is mature and sincere; he doesn’t patronize his characters or his audience, and handles his salacious subject in a completely matter-of-fact way. Fassbender is stoically mesmerizing, and doesn’t become any less credible when his facade finally cracks. Mulligan is, as usual, deceptively mature in her performance; whereas another, lesser starlet could easily cheapen the film by being histrionic, Mulligan manages to convey confusion and desperation in a way that feels raw and uncontrived. Though it’s anything but family friendly (read: do not take your parents to see Shame), this is one film every cinephile should put on their must-see list. Let the Oscar buzz begin.
(pictured: Carey Mulligan and Michael Fassbender)