Shame – review

Steve McQueen's follow-up to Hunger is an icily compulsive portrait of damaged siblings and sex addiction, fuelled by brilliant performances by Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan

Steve McQueen's film about a damaged sibling relationship, co-written with Abi Morgan, is a nightmarish, laugh-free black comedy about neurosis and dysfunction. It has the same icy, unwavering stare as his previous work, Hunger, about the Irish republican hunger-striker Bobby Sands, with the same degree-zero long camera takes.

Michael Fassbender stars as Brandon, a sleek young executive in New York, and a single guy who is fanatically, even ecstatically, addicted to casual sex, prostitutes and porn. It's an addiction that is strip-mining his personality of all recognisable human impulses. He is living in a hell that he has furnished and maintained himself, but it was made by someone else. A clue to this lies in his desperately unhappy screwup of a sister, Sissy, played by Carey Mulligan. To Brandon's dismay, Sissy announces she is going to be crashing at his bachelor pad while following her dream of being a singer, cramping his style and annoying the hell out of him.

Somehow Sissy and Brandon are always catching each other naked: he stumbles on her in the shower and she blunders into the bathroom while he is jerking off. Sissy is actually rather less damaged than he is, and McQueen allows us to create our own speculation about the siblings' background to run alongside the film. As one scene follows the next, theories will run though the audience's mind. Sissy drops one tiny, ambiguous hint at the very end.

Brandon is a sex-connoisseur and sex-sociopath, a zombified version of Bret Easton Ellis's Patrick Bateman or Martin Amis's John Self. He is an obsessive-compulsive seducer with particular mannerisms of dress, always going out to work in an overcoat fastidiously accessorised with a scarf. Brandon takes the subway and brazenly catches women's glances in the train carriages; we are introduced to him through a scene that is coolly controlled and modulated. An attractive woman smiles back at Brandon's lethally, telepathically sexual gaze. She starts to look a little turned on – forget phone sex, this is subway sex – before realising what is happening and looking embarrassed, then horrified. McQueen shows a whole narrative unfolding in a series of tiny gestures and expressions.

In the office, his boss delicately tells him his porn-clogged computer hard drive has had to be removed to be "cleaned up" and Brandon repairs to the office men's room, where he ferociously cleans germs from the lavatory seat with toilet paper, and McQueen coolly ends the scene before we can tell if Brandon is going to urinate or masturbate.

It is Brandon's unspeakable boss Dave, played by James Badge Dale, who ushers in the movie's most agonising scene. Dave is a married man with a family out in the suburbs; he turns a blind eye to Brandon's office-porn habit, but Brandon evidently has to come out with him in the evenings as an embarrassed wing man, while Dave trawls the city's bars to pick up women, though all of his targets clearly find Brandon far more attractive. (Dave resembles the Manhattan lothario played by Campbell Scott in Dylan Kidd's 2002 movie Roger Dodger.)

One night, Brandon takes Dave to see Sissy sing at a bar, and it is a revelation. Using one of his signature extended shots, a closeup on Sissy's face, McQueen shows that Sissy is actually a very talented singer. Her version of New York, New York is daringly slow and ruminative, a wan, sometimes slightly dissonant interpretation that is completely non-Glee. (Brandon himself has Glenn Gould's controversial "slow" recording of the Goldberg Variations on his turntable: a rather Hannibal Lecterish touch.)

The song clearly speaks of her yearning to escape and Brandon is profoundly affected. But after this performance appears miraculously to have healed her self-esteem … poor, lonely Sissy comes eagerly over to where Brandon and his predatory, sleazeball-philanderer boss are sitting. Having seen Dave's shame in failing with hot women the night before, Brandon must now be complicit in this new unfolding situation, and is ashamed on his and her behalf; it all leads to a hypnotically awful taxi ride back to their place. It would be sitcomishly funny if it weren't so clenched with humiliation and swallowed rage.

When Brandon attempts a dinner date with Marianne (Nicole Beharie) – a beautiful co-worker in his office – it is an uncomfortably real transcription of a supposedly romantic evening: another long, static camera shot. It starts with stilted conversation, ends with a spark, but is followed by a catastrophic tryst in which there is nothing but emotional degradation. McQueen shows how Brandon has no way of communicating except sex, and can't have sex with someone he genuinely likes. Tellingly, in bed, he asks Marianne if her underwear is "vintage": precisely the term Sissy had used to describe her wacky and bohemian hat. McQueen allows us to register the word-association almost subliminally: the vital sheen of porn-indifference he needs is killed by the fatal spark of gentleness and intimacy.

Shame is an interesting title: Brandon feels spasms of disgust and self-pity more than shame, but the point is rather that shame lies deeply buried under all of this. Brandon and Sissy live in an underworld melodrama of fear – not so much Crime and Punishment, but Addiction and Humiliation. With tremendous performances from Fassbender and Mulligan, and such superb technique from McQueen, this is a horrible inferno.


Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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