Shame (2011)

Drama Rated NC-17

The title that appears on the screen is unnecessary during the opening scene of Shame. The name of the picture – and more importantly, the psychological state it recalls – is written all over star Michael Fassbender’s face. Seen lying in bed from above, as still as a corpse and with dead blue eyes, he’s a still life of mortification.

Fassbender (A Dangerous Method, Jane Eyre) plays Brandon Sullivan, a New Yorker who is addicted to sex. What does this mean? (The label of “sex addict” is still met with skepticism.) In Shame, it means Brandon obsessively hunts for one-night stands. He hires prostitutes when that fails. His work and home computers are loaded with porn; he watches it while eating his dinner. Masturbation isn’t a habit, it’s a compulsion, both at home and in the office.

I’ll spare you what happens when he bottoms out. This is rough, sickening stuff. Not in a morally offensive way, but in the way that it lays bare the rot that can fester in the human soul. Its depiction of degradation calls to mind Requiem for a Dream; its depiction of dehumanization recalls Precious. All three films belong to that harrowing genre I think of as art of darkness. These are shattering, but vital, cinematic experiences, stories that force us to confront the worst within by getting us to first admit that the worst exists.

Not that Shame should be taken as the definitive movie on sex addiction, a label it’s received in some circles given the place of the topic in current news cycles (a recent Newsweek cover story declared we’re in an “epidemic”). That’s too much of a load for one movie to bear. Instead, Shame is one story of a man for whom sex has become a debilitating obsession.

A thankless role, you might think, yet Fassbender turns it into a tour de force; it’s a brutal, exposed performance. He’s gone to similar lengths before for director Steve McQueen – they previously teamed on the raw prison drama Hunger – yet Shame reveals a new level of (literally) naked intensity from the increasingly interesting actor (he was also Magneto in this year’s X-Men: First Class).

This is almost a silent-movie performance (McQueen, a visual artist before making movies, employs very little dialogue). Fassbender’s face says it all, from that eerie opening image to later in a bar, when he suddenly shifts from a well-mannered smile to a targeted stare at a woman in his sights. Later, during Brandon’s bottoming out, as he’s desperately attempting to achieve ecstasy, the anguish in his expression reveals the exact opposite. Sex can no longer repress the pain.

Fassbender is matched by Carey Mulligan as Sissy, Brandon’s unstable sister. Crashing at his high-rise bachelor pad, she disrupts his carefully cultivated sexual routine with her own brand of recklessness. She hints at a shared, tumultuous childhood – “We’re not bad people. We just come from a bad place,” she says – which suggests that Shame leans toward a nurture, rather than nature, understanding of sex addiction. Either way, the movie is a shocking change of pace for Mulligan, no longer the fresh pixie of An Education and Never Let Me Go. She captures a rawness that’s no less truthful, or less painful, than Fassbender’s.

This is an acting showcase, but McQueen’s hand shouldn’t be discounted. As evidenced by Hunger, he has a patient camera that’s content to linger for long moments on the (carefully constructed) frame. Here, he favors minimalist long shots, with a lone figure – usually Fassbender – against a stark cityscape. When the camera does move, it’s for a purpose – an extended tracking shot of Brandon taking an impulsive, midnight run reveals the restlessness that torments him.

So where does Shame leave us? Shaken, yes, but hopefully into an awareness of sex addiction as something other than a topic to titter about. The movie puts a face on what is being labeled as a particularly 21st-century sickness. And it’s a face – Fassbender’s – that gives what is easily the best performance of the year.