Michael Fassbender comes across as a consummate pick-up artist in the early scenes of Shame, director Steve McQueen's downbeat but compelling erotic drama. As Brandon, a rising white-collar worker in Manhattan, Fassbender can throw come-hither glances at a fellow subway commuter until their mutual eye contact suggests a form of carnal knowledge.
While clubbing with co-workers, his boss (James Badge Dale) makes an ass of himself trying to impress a trio of single ladies. Brandon sidles up, lets them check him, and reveals that he knows their eye color. Later, one of the women offers him a ride: cut to a quickie up against an alley wall, beneath a graffito that helpfully reads "fuck."
As an exposé of sex addiction, Shame has a quiet confidence to match its protagonist, and elicits sympathy for a tall, handsome guy who constantly beds hot partners. To show the downside of Brandon's compulsion, one shot follows him into a stall in his office men's room. He gathers up tissue paper, vigorously wipes down the toilet seat, then gathers up more, leans over and begins to masturbate. (Mercifully, McQueen doesn't linger on this moment.) Brandon's life amounts to killing time until his next orgasm, whether it involves a prostitute or a website.
Brandon could continue this way indefinitely until his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) barges into his apartment, having left countless wheedling phone messages. A talented nightclub singer, Sissy's also a needy, erratic wreck, and in one scene croons a drawn-out rendition of "New York, New York" that makes the quintessentially optimistic tune sound practically despairing. Sissy cramps Brandon's style as a ladies' man, flirts with his boss, and generally makes him face his sordid, empty lifestyle. Their dynamic suggests Christian Bale's soulless yuppie from American Psycho and Jennifer Jason Leigh's self-destructive singer from Georgia as siblings.
Shame reveals nothing about the siblings' background, although they were born in Ireland before moving to New Jersey. Sissy's remark, "We're not bad people, we just come from a bad place," confirms our suspicion that some kind of horrible abuse occurred in their childhood. Otherwise, Brandon seldom articulates his feelings, and has lost the ability to connect with women on any kind of personal or emotional level. On a first date with a smart, attractive co-worker (Nicole Beharie) he stumbles through agonizingly awkward small talk and practically has a visible thought-balloon that reads, "Can't we just go to Fuck Alley?"
Shame's explicitness earned the film an NC-17 rating. McQueen treats Fassbender's frequently nude form like an artist treats his model: The camera admires the sculpted musculature until it reveals the desperation in his eyes. Like Ryan Gosling in Drive, Fassbender gives a magnetic performance with minimal dialogue, although Brandon's charisma soon grows clouded with self-loathing.
Shame arrestingly follows its antihero on his downward spiral. Brandon resorts to increasingly extreme sexual activities to find release, but whatever he used to get out of his free-love lifestyle, he's not getting it anymore.