Shame (NC-17) (99 min.) — On the surface, Brandon Sullivan looks like a man who has it all. He's handsome and confident, clothed and housed in a manner that screams Manhattan wealth. Director-provocateur Steve McQueen grimly strips away that veneer — starting with the clothes — to reveal the ugliness behind Brandon's crocodile smile, and a personality to be pitied for its emotional disconnection.
Michael Fassbender's portrayal of Brandon is considered fearless in some corners, with the reasoning usually focused upon his casualness with displaying frontal nudity. If only McQueen and co-writer Abi Morgan revealed as much about the character. Fassbender is determined — or likelier urged by the director — to keep Brandon a blank slate. You wonder what Fassbender's Carl Jung in A Dangerous Method would think of such dramatic repression.
Brandon is a sex addict, and although Shame is the title of his story, it's also what he seems incapable of feeling. Every waking second he either prowls for another woman to seduce or indulges in unseemly alternatives: hiring prostitutes or browsing Internet porn sites and chronically masturbating, even at his work cubicle. There is nothing sexy about this existence. Or even that interesting after the initial shock of what we're witnessing wears off.
The necessary secrecy of such a lifestyle is disrupted when Brandon's sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), unexpectedly visits. They haven't seen each other for years. Even in the same room they're distanced by memories of an undisclosed childhood trauma. It could be incest, or sexual abuse by their father. Or perhaps something innocent, but McQueen wants us to guess luridly. For all of its explicitness, Shame is a tease about what matters in telling a story.
Sissy's intrusion affects every aspect of Brandon's life. She sleeps with his boss, and cramps his self-gratification style. In one frustrating sequence she sings the most morose version of New York, New York you'll ever hear, bringing Brandon to tears. But there's no reveal of what her performance triggers in him, only that he'll revert to zipless sex as soon as possible. McQueen dotes on carnality and dodges motivation, causing me to wonder if Shame is no more than a fetish indulged.
The movie proceeds, as glum and unsatisfying as Brandon's orgasms. He breaks away from Sissy for decadent relief consisting of a gay orgy club, a threesome with hookers and a public sexual battery that rightfully gets him punched out. Eroticism has nothing to do with it. This is a character, a director and a movie out of control. Shame smears the lines between daring and taunting, and art versus indulgence. When it ends there's the urge to take a shower, and not a cold one. C (Tampa Theatre)
Steve Persall, Times movie critic