Shame (dir. Steve McQueen, 2011)

Director Steve Mcqueen’s Shame is about addiction, but it is also carefully and implicitly about abuse. Brandon (a superb Michael Fassbender) leads a life of anxious, methodical secrecy. A quietly affable Wall Street type in public, he carries the private burden of a consuming sex addiction. Porn sites, prostitutes and one-night stands are all part of his hyper-regular routine, which he submits to with self-loathing functionality. Though we see Brandon engaging in a rabid tryst in an alleyway, and learn that his work computer is chock-full of smut, his primary place of addictive practice – his safe zone, in a way – is his apartment. Which is why he is thrown into crisis with the unannounced arrival of his younger sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan, never better), a beleaguered aspiring singer with scars on her inner arm and a haphazardly lax sense of personal space. We know from conversation that Brandon and Sissy are originally from Ireland, but we hear nothing of other family. That the siblings interact with each other in queasily varying states of undress, and that they both physically manifest unhealthy dependency, suggests that the topic of family holds unpleasant associations. As Sissy says at a critical moment, “We’re not bad people, we just come from a bad place.”

McQueen’s direction is elegiac. In certain scenes he holds on his subjects for minutes at a time, as if not wanting to let them go, while in other key sequences he has the camera swirl around and over them in a romantic panic. The instinctive, gutsy re-appropriation of the score from Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line adds a welcome sense of old-fashioned sadness. In Shame, McQueen presents an addiction that aches more than it titillates, is wistful more than it is lurid, is sweeping when others might make it cheap.