Down and dirty: Fassbender’s performance as a sex addict is spellbinding, though ‘Shame’ is not
Run, ladies. There’s a vampire of sorts on the loose. His name is Brandon. He works in high-tech, and he wants you. All of you.
Since Brandon is played by Michael Fassbender, it will be tempting to run toward him, toward his unclothed front as he pads around his equally underdressed Manhattan apartment. Fassbender’s lips are full, his eyes smolder over things we’ll never know. He’s very fit. You’ll want to help him, to hold him, to make love to him. Impossible. He’s love-averse, and the Englishman Steve McQueen has constructed around his vampirism a sarcophagus city.
This New York is a dark, dangerous place, where the men are inexorably concerned with sex. The gist of the movie is that Brandon, the Nosferatu of Madison Avenue, might be overly concerned. He fishes for women on the subway. He uses an escort service. He gets Chinese takeout and watches porn on his laptop. He masturbates in the shower. He does it staring at himself in the bathroom mirror. He does it in a men’s room stall at work. He and a stranger go at it against the concrete beneath a highway overpass after she pulls up alongside him.
More than once Brandon proceeds with some of his behavior even as a woman pleads from his answering machine for him to pick up the phone. We’re meant to watch all this and think that he has a problem. Honestly, there are worse lives to have. Still, there’s a misery in Fassbender that’s spellbinding. I rolled my eyes for most of “Shame.’’ But never at him. That face tells the story of addiction: the joylessness of sex.
And the best that McQueen can do is punch up the ugliness and drudgery. In the opening scenes, Brandon emerges from his bedroom and parades from one side of his apartment to the other in a kind of daily rhythm, while the soundtrack generates, among other things, a ticking - an expression of the clockwork of his compulsion and the threat of a time bomb.
You wonder how long McQueen can dam off the conventions of narrative moviemaking. How long can he sustain this isolated mood of self-destruction? Once Brandon comes home from that overpass, hears Chic playing on his turntable, and discovers his estranged sister using his shower, we have our answer. About 20 minutes. This is who’s been leaving the dire messages on his answering machine. Her name is Sissy, and she’s played by Carey Mulligan, an actress who’s making a habit of appearing in movies - “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps’’ and and “Drive’’ - that need her to draw out a hard male protagonist’s softer side. This isn’t an actress’s job. It’s a pharmaceutical’s.
In all three films, Mulligan is a drag. Here, she’s close to ruinous, since gradually she exposes McQueen’s dramatic limitations, that what he’s after is mostly an acting exercise. All her scenes in “Shame’’ have an improvised looseness. Of course, the trouble with improvisation - or something close to it - is that you risk looking like you have nothing to say. When Brandon and Sissy go at each other, what they say sounds so generic that it sounds untrue. Mulligan does manage to succeed in aggravating and nauseating Brandon enough that his time bomb eventually detonates.
Sissy’s a singer with a gig at a sleek bar. The camera parks itself in front of her face, and the instant she opens her mouth, your heart sinks: “New York, New York’’? As a torch song? It’s meant to be A Moment (Brandon wipes away tears). But watching Mulligan turn her lights down low to sing, you feel ripped off. Her voice matches the movie’s refrigerated air. Who would pay to hear this? Where’s the fun girl who breaks into Brandon’s apartment, wears old clothes, and puts on that Chic record? She doesn’t have to sing “Le Freak’’ - McQueen already thinks he’s showing us that - but this woman is a bunch of tics and cliches without the unifying principle of a character.
Brandon wants her out, but where would she go? Back to the Rosanna Arquette movie that spawned her? McQueen doesn’t explain anything about the lives of these two. We learn that they’re just a pair of Irish kids from New Jersey, and we can tell that something’s warped them. Sissy is clingy and needy where her brother is cold and remote. She affixes herself to Brandon’s sleazy young boss (James Badge Dale) and heads right for Brandon’s bed while a disgusted Brandon turns on Glenn Gould and goes for a run.
Sissy is as obsessed with the drama of love as Brandon is with the deadness of sex. Her touch makes his skin crawl. Rather than take this familial dysfunction someplace strange and emotionally interesting, someplace psychological, McQueen and his co-writer, Abi Morgan, come up with more ambulatory scenarios for Brandon.
He goes on a date with Marianne (Nicole Beharie), a game, sexy co-worker. Her seduction of him isn’t a seduction at all. As Brandon abusively whips some packets of sweetener in the air (with the same determination that he uses on himself), she just walks up to him in the break room and says, “You like your sugar.’’ That’s the worst line of the year. But Fassbender and Beharie are erotically dialed into each other. How that moment leads to a boring old date is anybody’s guess. But Beharie is such a marvel of natural transparency that you can sense Brandon fearing the human feelings this woman momentarily draws from him.
McQueen and Morgan are using these characters and scenarios to send Brandon over the edge. Because that’s what “Shame’’ is after - a grand, all-night binge, real provocation. It’s a ridiculous culmination, but it’s how we really know that McQueen is capital-d directing. These scenes are obvious and pitifully moralistic and end in the sort of tragedy we know is coming, even as we’re meant to find what precedes it outrageous and appalling. One gay nightclub is lit the color of hell, that ticking from the opening sequences achieves a more masturbatory throb, and a climactic hotel sequence turns the ecstasy of sex into agony. You’ve heard of Skinemax? Bring Bactine.
McQueen’s first movie, “Hunger,’’ also starred Fassbender and was also about the body in extremis. It turned the Irish Republican Army prisoner Bobby Sands’ fatal hunger strike into a formal experiment. Some saw great political art. It also felt like a stunt. But it was a more thoroughly conceived film than “Shame.’’ McQueen knew what he wanted to do, what he wanted to say about a man’s politics and his commitment to them, and he said it.
Brandon might have been a character invented by Paul Schrader in his intellectual prime in the late 1970s and early and mid-1980s, when he wrote Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver’’ and made “Blue Collar,’’ “Hardcore,’’ “American Gigolo,’’ “Cat People,’’ and “Mishima’’ and was serious - sometimes too serious - about the spiritual interplay of morality, religion, psychology, and sex. All McQueen seems to have learned from those movies is shock value, although he does furnish the “real rain’’ from “Taxi Driver’’ to rinse away some scum. The moralizing in “Shame’’ has nothing more than sad provocation holding it up. It’s desperate, hunger-strike Paul Schrader.
But you believe in Fassbender. All the rubbing and thrusting he does is chiefly physical, yet if there’s something persuasively psychological here it’s the possibility that Brandon keeps trying to empty himself, to rub himself out, and he is dismayed to find that there’s always more of him left to purge. Even so, I don’t know what McQueen means by any of this - though he clearly means something. I can’t believe this movie, because I don’t know what I’m supposed to believe. McQueen keeps gunking up the personal crisis with Actor’s Studio calisthenics and arty doom. He’s a good enough filmmaker, but Brandon’s self-indulgence appears to be a trait shared by his creator. You want church but all you get is steeple.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.