Shame is not about sex, but a man imprisoned by it. The opening scenes establish all this with little visualization of Brandon’s sexual encounters. McQueen is more interested in what happens after the impulse and release, which in this case is profound indignity. From here, Shame delves into Brandon’s life, which despite his giving the appearance of control is, in fact, teetering. We are introduced to a number of supporting characters—from Brandon’s chauvinist of a boss to his unstable sister. But, the more the film shows us of Brandon’s life, the less compelling it is. Part of the reason for this is that the screenplay sells the premise short. Its symmetrical bookends (an encounter on the subway) and too-neat character arcs are not especially genuine or interesting, nor do they pair well with McQueen’s minimalist aesthetic (which perhaps requires less rigorous structure from the screenplay).
Michael Fassbender’s portrayal of the numbness into which his character’s relentless pursuit of pleasure inevitably transforms is wrenching. His ability to express profound suffering with so little speech and movement borders on poetic. Needless to say, Fassbender is Shame’s greatest asset. Paradoxically, the pain he movingly exudes is most potent and fully realized at the outset of the film, when we have less of a sense of Brandon’s life. That’s because despite eschewing a concrete resolution, Shame remains tightly sealed and with curiously little to do. I admire McQueen’s frank approach to addiction—which netted the film an NC-17 rating—and I wish more directors were as brave purely on a conceptual level. However, McQueen fails to leverage both his broader mission and Fassbender’s withering vision of dependency into something substantive. (Steve McQueen, 2011) **