Adam Cook’s review:
Sex addiction is often seen as a rather silly and trivial addiction, one that celebrities wheel out when their infidelities become public knowledge. Yet in Steve McQueen's second feature it is portrayed as potentially serious, debilitating and life destroying as drug or alcohol addiction. The film is as utterly empty as Brandon's own existence and whilst that may sound like a flaw it really isn't. McQueen puts you in his world and gets under the skin of Brandon's hollow life and ambiguous family backstory. It is odd coming out of a film where you feel so little, normally they aim to heighten emotions not numb them, but it is crucial in understanding the character and the world he inhabits for this to be the response.
As with McQueen's first film (the excellent Hunger) Shame is exquisitely photographed and shares the same use of tracking shots, long takes and arresting framing. The film even contains another single-shot conversation between two people, although it is less successful here than it was in Hunger. It is a cliché to say it but Michael Fassbender's performance is truly fearless. Ignoring the frequent, protracted and explicit sex scenes it is the emotional nakedness that is the most startling thing about the performance. The way he gradually chips away at this easy charm veneer is beautifully portrayed and it is easy to see why so much hype is surrounding him as an actor. Carey Mulligan continues to deliver great performances too, this time as Brandon's equally as messed up sister, Cissy. It is a shame her character and relationship with her brother is not afforded more screen time because it is the heart of the story and the reason why both have such destructive personalities. But McQueen is keen to keep their backstory vague and in a way it is probably for the best as it offers different interpretations and a more explicit history could well have provided a pat resolution. Whilst the film does hark back to certain films of the '70s and '80s (American Gigolo would certainly make an interesting double-bill with Shame) it still feels very much of its time whilst the city of New York is used to both reflect and hide Brandon's emotional state.
The film is certainly not for everyone; some will find it boring thanks to the drawn out pace, lack of 'plot' or resolution whilst others will find the endless sex scenes off putting and gratuitous. Yet these people would be wrong, or at least not watching the film as it is intended. It needs to be slow and plot-lite because we are experiencing Brandon's world through his eyes. Which is why the sex and the way it portrayed is so crucial too. Although it received the odd embarrassed snigger from the audience it is the least erotic and titillating consensual sex you are likely to see on screen. There is no emotion or connection between the people in front of the camera, it is merely used as that hit or release that he constantly needs in his life. Shame ends up being a numbing but wholly worthwhile experience.