Shame articulates a shallow, even mundane, understanding of an uninteresting man’s sex addiction—in a vibrant city rendered dull and anonymous. This self-serious elegy to a corporate drone’s debauchery begins like it ends, with Brandon (Michael Fassbender) debonairly sniffing for pussy on the subway; he misses out, as the target of his radioactive gaze doesn’t share the courage of his convictions, but Married Subway Girl’s loss is Every Other Woman In New York City’s gain. As in the equally dour Hunger, his last tony collaboration with director Steve McQueen, Fassbender is a man trapped inside the prison of his own body, though this time the jailer and the prisoner would appear to be one and the same.
Maybe it’s because of the banality of its conception that some, out of desperation, see Shame as a quintessential New York City story, as if Brandon boning a woman against a wall-sized window that faces the Hudson, or jogging down 31st Street away from the Chelsea apartment where his sister fucks his married boss, is some kind of thoughtful reflection of New York City experience. Which is not to say that McQueen, given how his ethereal style of filmmaking romanticizes place in the same manner as it does Brandon’s exploits, doesn’t invite such a reading. The drably antiseptic look of the film, as if in homage to Brandon’s droopy, worn-out cock, suggests a fancy article of clothing that’s been washed one too many times, so maybe we’re meant to see Shame as a relic to a bygone past—like the one car on the one subway on the 1/2 line with the graffiti on the windows that Brandon always seems to get on.
If Shame had meaningfully represented how place, not just the ghosts of a city’s past, can haunt a person, maybe then it wouldn’t matter that McQueen’s consideration of his main character’s pathological relationship to sex is so unbearably shallow. Brandon, whose computer at work, like his closet at home, is swamped with porn, who’s on a first-name basis with the women on live Internet sex sites, and who gets the shit beat out of him for putting his fingers inside another man’s girlfriend, is Patrick Bateman without a chainsaw, and like the great actor who plays him, he’s irresistible to everyone, man and woman alike. He’s dashing, quiet, and freakishly observant, if only in the moment, and as such his bed is never empty, but is it really the stuff of tragedy that he can’t sustain a long-term relationship?
Shame is strung together from contrived juxtapositions of behavior that dully and redundantly illustrate Brandon’s impossible sex appeal and emotional availability. After his effusive boss, David (James Badge Dale), embarrasses himself while trying to pick up a girl at a bar, the calm, cool, and only seemingly collected Brandon snags her instead, fucking her against a strategically placed slab of graffiti-strewn concrete before moving on to his next conquest. And after a pleasant-enough date with a co-worker (Nicole Beharie) to whom he reveals he’s never been in a relationship that’s lasted longer than four months, Brandon makes a game attempt at romance with the girl only to go soft when he tries to bed her for the first time.
A rebuke of sorts to the kitchen-sink dramas of the 1950s and ‘60s that confronted audiences with the ugly realities of its characters’ lives, Shame, so convinced that its minimalist storytelling is profound rather than lazy, tells us that Brandon’s family migrated from Ireland to New Jersey, that he likely spends hours a day strengthening the muscles in his buttocks, and that his absolutely frantic sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), used to cut herself—information that, when paired with Brandon’s obsession with loveless sex, suggests that the brother and sister had less-than-rosy upbringings in the Garden State. Fassbender incredibly, almost imperceptibly, shows how Brandon’s confidence can so readily be hijacked by his shame from moment to moment, but his methods, like the tear Brandon sheds while listening to Sissy perform “New York, New York” at a posh bar, is in service of a man that remains as much a cipher to his conquests as he does to the audience.