If you met Brandon (Michael Fassbender) on the sidewalk, you may be taken in by him. He is well-dressed, impeccably groomed, and confident. Women are attracted to him and men find him impossible to compete with. He is in complete control of himself, or so we are lead to believe. Underneath the veneer finish lies a secret: Brandon is an addict.
The random encounter at a bar, "the look" on the train, the smooth compliment at just the right time. He is an operator, nothing is out of reach for his sexual conquests. Yet, Brandon's troubles are beginning. The game is insufficient now. The chase is easy, the payoff is in the climax. Like every addict the stakes may be hiked in order to get the thrill anymore. And every time Brandon aims to raise them he sets himself further away from others. There's no connection with these women, just another way to wring pleasure from his existence.
That's the danger of chasing a high, it is never sated and the morning after deals a punishing blow.
Director Steve McQueen makes a visual motif of light breaking through the aftermath of a debauched evening. The film rarely sets Brandon in the light of day and it is for good reason. Light cuts clear to the truth, and whatever truth Brandon is hiding, he refuses to acknowledge it. Which is why Sissy's (Carey Mulligan) surprise stay at his apartment has set him on edge. At every turn she seeks some sort of openness from Brandon. In turn, he keeps her at a distance. He views her as a burden and nothing more. No one is deserving to know his innermost thoughts. With all of Sissy's attempts to reach him, he pushes away and goes on the prowl again.
The chase keeps Brandon from focusing on the truth. What is similarly frustrating is that McQueen acts similarly. Each step we get closer to knowing Brandon, the auteur veers off course toward a showier, physical act. Shame never gets around to saying anything about its characters because the risque presents a constant obstacle. Orgies, gay scenes and other forms of physical gratification are understandably included, but there is even an instance of Michael Fassbender urinating.
Maybe it is my fault for expecting more to be said for the characters, but for all of the visual flourish of Shame, there is little to help sustain it. McQueen's previous effort, Hunger, combined the physical with the transcendent with much greater ease. McQueen's sophomore effort is a visual pleasure, but too manifested in the physical realm, just like its protagonist.
**1/2 out of ****