Susan Granger’s review of “Shame” (Fox Searchlight Pictures)
Why do we go to the movies? Research has shown that often we want to cross the transom of our social universe and enter the lives of people we cannot know in our own neighborhood. The founder of analytical psychology Carl Jung wrote, “Cinema, like a good detective story, makes it possible to experience, without danger, all the excitement, passion and desire we must suppress in ordinary daily life.”
But none of that excuses this tough-minded exploration of the pathology of insatiable sex addiction. As it begins, Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender) lies naked in bed in his austere Manhattan apartment, numbly recovering from one meaningless sexual encounter before launching into another, shortly afterwards, on the subway, when he makes eye-contact with a luscious lass and mentally undresses her. His solitary, obsessive life revolves around prostitutes and pornography, some of which he’s stashed on his office computer. Commitment-phobic, Brandon has never maintained any relationship with a woman longer than four months. That, plus his repetitive masturbation, is compulsive, not normal behavior, and he knows it. Hence, his anguish
But the unexpected arrival of his emotionally overwrought, younger sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), disturbs his private, hedonistic rituals. Terrified of abandonment, she clings – when she’s not cutting herself – or warbling a terminally tedious rendition of “New York, New York.”
Elliptically co-written and directed by British video artist-turned-filmmaker Steve McQueen (no relation to the late actor with the same name), there’s no backstory or insight to explain the Irish-born, New Jersey-raised siblings’ self-destructive behavior, nor do either of the characters have an emotional arc, transformation or resolution. Presumably, Brandon is still on the prowl and fragile Sissy will continue to abuse herself.
During this tedious exercise, both Michael Fassbender (“X-Men: First Class,” “Jane Eyre,” “A Dangerous Method”) and Carey Mulligan (“An Education”) get full-frontal naked. Rarely have two such highly respected thespians cavorted in what amounts of graphic, soft-core porn – which more than earns its NC-17 rating.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Shame” is a disturbing, exploitive 2. It’s a depressing dirge.