Starring Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan. Written by Steve McQueen, Abi Morgan. Directed by Steve McQueen. 18A. 101 min. Opens Dec. 2.
Michael Fassbender was a virtual unknown when he appeared three years ago as Bobby Sands in Steve McQueen’s ferocious first feature, Hunger. Since then, he has rapidly established himself as our era’s preeminent arthouse hunk. His subsequent appearances in Inglourious Basterds, Fish Tank, Jane Eyre and A Dangerous Method—plus a detour into blockbuster fare with X-Men: First Class—proved him to be an unusually adventurous actor whose good looks belied a forte for the dark stuff.
Even so, he reaches a new extreme with his raw, charged and often clothes-optional performance in Shame, his second teaming with McQueen. Fassbender plays Brandon, a sex-addicted New Yorker tormented by inner demons and by his fraught relationship with his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan). Initially presented as a smooth operator both at the ad agency where he works and in the chic bars and clubs where he prowls at night, Brandon begins to break down when he can no longer hide the terror he feels toward his own emotions.
Unfortunately, the weaknesses in McQueen’s austere, patience-testing directorial style that were evident in Hunger are harder to forgive here. The Bach-heavy musical score becomes a clumsy means to heighten the impact of scenes that would’ve worked better at a more frigid emotional temperature. Several psychologically pat revelations late in the film also leave the characters seeming less complex than they ought to be. McQueen may purport to deliver a provocative take on modern sexual mores, but the result is a shallow character study marred by cliché. The real shame about Shame, though, is how laborious it feels in spite of Fassbender’s fearlessness—it’s always sad to see a man put in so much effort for so little reward, especially when his pants are off.