I will never argue with anyone who wants to put Michael Fassbender (A Dangerous Method, Jane Eyre) in intimate situations and just let the camera run. However, director Steve McQueen's latest film Shame, although ambitious, left me as empty and listless as the sex addict Fassbender plays. Even though it refuses to tie everything up in a nice bow, as a portrait of a troubled man, it only hits shallow notes.
Brandon (Fassbender) lives the kind of highfalutin' New York City life that makes his sex addiction look more desirable than it usually does. He has a high-paying job (that he masturbates to Internet porn at), has a great apartment (that he invites prostitutes over to), and goes out to fancy joints for a good time (where he picks up random women so he can have sex with them in alleys). Through quiet, contemplative looks from Fassbender, the audience is led to believe that he can't experience real, intimate relationships with people because of this addiction. At least, I'm pretty sure that's what we're supposed to be getting from his hangdog looks. When his sister Sissy (Carrie Mulligan) comes to stay with him, we realize that their entire family should be running up a huge therapy bill because they're all a mess.
Normally I enjoy films that use long, lingering takes to stress a point. When they fail to give pat answers to difficult questions, I cheer. The difference in this movie is that despite Fassbender's Herculean efforts to broadcast the inner turmoil that a person with this affliction goes through, it never goes past him staring out windows or jogging a lot. It's a risky venture to make a slice of life movie about the isolation of dysfunction--but if McQueen's goal is to leave you feeling like Fassbender's echoing, hollow apartment after his latest prostitute walked out the door, he succeeded.
There are things to applaud in the film, such as Fassbender's performance. The film also has a surprising kind of confidence that lets things just play out onscreen, such as Carrie Mulligan's cover of New York, New York in its entirety, only cutting from her face to focus on Fassbender's, which is nearly as sad as hers is. Audiences get to live through his mildly awkward date/attempt at closeness, as well as how his addiction stops him from fully interacting with a real partner. The film ends up being a kind of blank canvas for the viewer to project their own feelings onto, and although mine were disconnected, it's sure to be a film you'll want to discuss afterwards (perhaps with that therapist you're paying).