Brandon frequently hires prostitutes, masturbates at the office, picks up women on the subway and accesses pornography via his work computer. Feeding his addiction is just part of his day-to-day business and when we see Brandon at the beginning of the film, it appears that he is in control, however discontented. But then his needy and unstable sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) turns up on his doorstep, uninvited. The siblings’ dysfunctional relationship appears to be something of a trigger and Brandon soon starts to unravel.
Whilst we never do find out the cause of his obsession, Sissy’s presence suggests that their childhood is at the root. One particularly arresting scene involves Sissy singing a slow version of ‘New York, New York’, at a cocktail bar. McQueen switches the frames, slowly, between Brandon and Sissy, studying their affected expressions for clues as to what might have happened to leave them both so damaged.
While some may find the film’s lack of explanation frustrating, Shame isn’t about Brandon’s journey - it’s more an immediate and unflinchingly raw character study that throws us into the core of a very private affliction. The camera often lingers during uncomfortable and humiliating situations, not allowing us to look away during the likes of a nervous first-date discussion or an emotionally awkward tryst. Sensing Brandon’s rage, guilt and ultimate loneliness is unavoidable.
Abi Morgan and McQueen’s bleak story is beautifully shot throughout. New York is a significant setting, working to evoke an ironic feeling of isolation. The backdrop also gives Brandon that necessary ‘access to excess’, a key factor that Fassbender acknowledges more than once during the DVD’s Q&A feature filmed at Hackney’s Picturehouse.
Shame is a bold, stylish and captivating movie with a mesmerising performance from Fassbender. Whilst it might have been good to see the film dig a little deeper into the complexities of Brandon’s relationships, this is still a thought-provoking and powerful piece of cinema. DVD Extras include an insightful Q&A with Fassbender and two brief interviews with Fassbender and Mulligan.