Pinpointing what director Steve McQueen lost, or intentionally gave up, since he made 2008’s Hunger is the primary task in assessing what Shame, his newest look at the tortures of being human, is supposed to be. Hunger, his only previous film, is a prison movie about real-life IRA volunteer Bobby Sands, who protested his status as a common, rather than a political prisoner, by starving himself to death in an English jail cell. It’s a rigidly stylized and blank-faced look at both a particular political climate and a personal sacrifice, and it starkly succeeds as both.
Shame has the meticulous craft and deadly-serious tone that are by now McQueen’s trademarks, but it almost completely eschews the sympathy that Hunger had for its main character. It fact, it goes exactly the opposite route, giving Michael Fassbender (who also provided an icily magnificent lead performance for Hunger) the role of an ostensibly vapid man, a sex addict who seems to have given up searching for his soul and leaving the question of whether we should feel anything for him pretty much open. In the process, Shame is left frustratingly, perhaps intentionally, empty; it lacks punch, human (though not sexual) rawness, moral heft — things that are not so clearly missing in films (like Hunger) that focus more on physical than emotional damage. In movies like this one — that is, beautifully crafted analyses of mature themes — a moral center is generally expected, and the lack of one is a serious white elephant in the theater. Since McQueen seems to be one of the most assured directors to have started making films in the past few years, the real question is whether he means us to feel as much nothing as his characters.
Fassbender’s sex addict, Brandon, supports his habit with a lackluster career as a mid-level ad executive (or some such moderately well-paying Manhattan office drone). His sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), is an itinerant lounge singer with frequent man problems and a habit of dropping in on his life, desperate and uninvited. After ignoring her voicemail pleas for weeks, Brandon comes home one day to find Sissy in his apartment, taking a shower, with her bags already unpacked. It’s a disturbing thought for him to allow anyone, let alone a close relative, into his life, but we get the impression (through Fassbender’s solid but emotive face) that he feels enough perfunctory brotherly love to let her stay.
They don’t live well together. When she walks in on him masturbating, or discovers porn left open on his laptop, or sleeps with his boss, a womanizer without Brandon’s skill for the trade, she turns the life he’s built, based almost exclusively on sexual gratification, upside down. Watching their relationship grow tense and unravel, like watching Brandon’s frequent empty sexual encounters, is as painful as McQueen means it to be. The more pain the siblings bring up for one another, the more strongly we sense that something awful must have happened to them in childhood, because Brandon and Sissy both emerge, through McQueen’s oblique storytelling, as tortured people who have been forced to rely on one another, mostly at great personal cost. We don’t know who abused or abandoned them, or how long they’ve been quietly suffering through life. We know that Sissy wants men to love her, while Brandon just wants to stew in his own sexual juices. Everything else is for the inference.
McQueen is obviously intensely interested in whatever unspoken trauma haunts Brandon and Sissy; if he wasn’t, he wouldn’t have put so much care into this film. But without a historical character like Bobby Sands to ground us in place and perspective (nearly everything in Shame is set in a glassy, dark blue, upper-class Manhattan), he has taken a turn into a very artistic form of detachment. McQueen makes — and it is undeniable that every aspect of his films are intentional — Brandon as empty for us as he must feel about himself. While this often feels like the coup of a sadistic craftsman (a modern-day Kubrick), it’s also the work of man far above condemning people for their flaws. If McQueen intentionally dropped the pathos after dealing with Bobby Sands — if he thinks that the best way to get us care about Brandon is to make us feel Brandon’s emptiness — he may be one of the most clever filmmakers alive.