Brandon (Michael Fassbender) is sort of a sex addict. I say "sort of" for a couple of reasons. Recently I had the unhappy experience of witnessing the romantic "comedy" What's Your Number?, a film where we learn that while Anna Faris is busy freaking out over the fact that she's had sex with 20 different men over the past decade, Chris Evans has happily done it with well over 300 different women. Because it's all supposed to be funny and Evans refuses guilt over sharing himself that freely with that many people, you don't walk out of the movie thinking, "Gosh, what a sex addict." For most of the film's running time, right up until the moment he falls for Faris, he comes off more like an enthusiastic hobbyist.
Just like Evans' character in that terrible movie, Fassbender is plain old good looking enough to warrant having an unusually high number of sexual partners, and this powerfully unhappy film from artist/filmmaker Steve McQueen involves him doing just that, mostly with women, with guys in a pinch. Also like Evans' character, Fassbender is skilled at the hunt, ready for it anytime, anywhere and completely detached from all consequences. The difference is he's bummed out about it. His O-face is more grimace than grin.
Unlike most stereotypical movie addiction depictions, however, Brandon's compulsive behavior is masked by clean presentation. He hasn't lost control. He's employed, fastidious and bland. He lives in a spotless, organized, sterile apartment, like the sets of American Psycho, minus the serial murders and cannibalism. And he scoops up the very woman his own boss is striking out with in a bar, later doing it with her quick and dirty on a rooftop, thanks to a winning combo of detail-oriented personality (he successfully guesses her eye color when the boss fails) and quiet, mysterious detachment. It's no coincidence that director McQueen makes movies in exactly the same way. We're shown a lot and told very little, left to judge or not judge Brandon's behavior. He's either pathologically indulging in sex to numb some inner pain and in need of intervention, or he's just a sad, modern, urban guy who gets an above-average amount of IRL humping when he's not busy staring at porn on his computer. Or masturbating. Or both.
Into this hermetically sealed compartment of self-indulgence busts a messy, problem-tornado of a sister (Carey Mulligan). She sets off an emotional chain reaction in big brother -- we don't know why, exactly, but she used to be a cutter and he cries when she sings "New York, New York" -- and the shame of the title takes over. It doesn't stop him from employing prostitutes, scouring the Internet for more naked entertainment or hooking up with strangers wherever he can, but he feels progressively worse about it. Whatever pleasure he used to get from it is gone and both the man and his full-frontal penis look completely exhausted. His existence is the opposite of just about every Serge Gainsbourg song ever written.
If you include McQueen's earlier art world-centered short films and his first feature Hunger -- about about Irish Republican Army member Bobby Sands' 1981 prison hunger strike, which also starred Fassbender -- the director's subject (for now, at least) is pretty clear: what you do with/to your body is what you're doing to your life and to the world around you. It's a mystery object of desire or aggression, it's a political weapon, it's a vehicle for pleasure, it's a thing to manipulate in order to medicate yourself or control others, it's whatever else you can think up. Just don't think up something enjoyable because that just ain't happening. In other words, if you've come for the sex you're going to leave humming the sadness.