Sex addiction has yet to get a serious film treatment until "Shame," the sophomore feature from filmmaker Steve McQueen. Generally we feel inclined to put a comic spin on anything that taboo (see the adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk's sex-addiction novel "Choke"), but here we see how it ruins lives and relationships.
Like any addiction, main character Brandon (Michael Fassbender) becomes preoccupied with sex, participating in everything from prostitution to Internet pornography to relieving himself in the bathroom at work. The film's first act is a long sample of how sex dominates most of Brandon's thoughts as he goes through a typical week, a character study in perversion but not one that demonizes his habit so much as displaying it for what it is. We don't feel bad for Brandon nor do we despise him. Shame, aptly, might be the most applicable emotion.
As with any character study, a lot hinges on Fassbender's performance, and he delivers. Brandon isn't given a line of dialogue for what feels like ages at the beginning, yet Fassbender perfectly (albeit somewhat horrifyingly) telegraphs his internal thought process. McQueen is in perfect sync, injecting us into Brandon's brain as best he can by subtly sexualizing a lot of what Brandon sees. A sequence on the subway is entirely silent but especially powerful as Brandon eyes a woman across the way.
Stretches of "Shame" will bore some viewers to death, but it's a sacrifice McQueen makes to convey the solitude and loneliness of a man with Brandon's condition. His lifestyle simply does not allow for extended periods of human contact or long-term relationships. When he makes efforts to do so in the film, it's painstaking for him. Much of the movie feels superfluous (it could rank among the longest 100 minutes in film history), but to some extent we cannot truly understand Brandon unless we are fully treated to that isolation, to a complete lack of interest in anything but sex or something that might lead to sex or sexual satisfaction.
After our first series of trials observing Brandon, McQueen and co-writer Abi Morgan drop in Sissy (Carey Mulligan), Brandon's equally troubled (in a whole other way) sister. Her on-screen introduction features her completely nude and arguing with Brandon in the bathroom, which sets the table for their relationship. Sissy is the opposite of Brandon, a jazz singer completely dependent on human contact and emotional connection. Her intrusion on Brandon's life understandably causes him to get angry and emotionally volatile.
Brandon is not entirely averse to change, but he struggles mightily with it. The third act is an experiment that achieves both positive and negative results and digs into the question of whether or not one can personally overcome something of this magnitude. Never, however, does the film confront its themes or questions through dialogue. Only once does Sissy even allude to Brandon's perversion, telling him he has no right to chastise anyone else's sexual choices.
Fassbender and Mulligan ultimately anchor "Shame." Without them, the film would be deemed powerfully told, but completely un-engaging. Their raw performances and willingness to bare all physically and emotionally create the hook that makes such a brooding character study work. McQueen certainly deserves credit as well for working with them to create captivating performances.
The subject matter of "Shame" is not an easy one from a filmmaking perspective as well as a cultural one, but McQueen does an honorable job with it. He recognizes which traditional storytelling practices he must sacrifice in order to truly capture sex addiction tonally and emotionally.