Despite the ado about its NC-17 rating, "Shame" is the least-sexy movie about sex you will ever see.
Michael Fassbender lays himself bare, literally and metaphorically, as a sex addict prowling an increasingly dark and dangerous New York City; one of the first shots is of his character, Brandon, walking naked through his chicly sparse bachelor pad in the unforgiving morning light. But there's nothing titillating about the often graphic interludes in which Brandon engages; they grow more desperate, animalistic and unsatisfying - for everyone involved - as the film spirals toward its overwhelming conclusion.
Fassbender reunites with Steve McQueen, the British artist-turned-filmmaker who directed him in his breakthrough role, 2008's "Hunger," in which he starred as Irish hunger striker Bobby Sands. The two seem to push each other to their extremes in a collaboration that's as challenging as it is creatively liberating. Fassbender's performance here is riveting, haunting. He immerses himself and makes you feel as if you're truly watching a man hell-bent on exorcising his demons through compulsive self-destruction.
On the exterior, though, Brandon is stylish, polished and confident; McQueen lures us in and builds tension through impressively extended tracking shots and long static shots that linger on Fassbender's chiseled facial features, his hard, blue eyes and his lean, muscular frame. But Brandon's impulses betray him. He'll hold the glance of a pretty, married woman on the subway for far too long, and expensive escorts slip in and out of his high-rise apartment day and night. Later, his overly garrulous boss (James Badge Dale) at his nondescript corporate job will inform him that his computer is filthy with porn, and that the techs had to scrub it clean.
He finds his routine disrupted with the unannounced arrival of his younger sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), a wayward lounge singer just in from Los Angeles with nowhere else to go. The two have an unspecified history of family damage which makes it impossible for either of them to develop a loving, stable romance. (Some viewers have suggested that they shared an incestuous relationship as children; I don't see it and McQueen wisely leaves it open for interpretation.) Mulligan is also quite powerful here in a vast departure from the more reserved roles we've seen her in before ("An Education," "Never Let Me Go"). There's always something that's just a little off in the way Brandon and Sissy regard each other, even in quiet moments on the couch, and that volatility crackles.
Brandon makes a feeble stab at normalcy by dumping his prodigious porn collection and asking out a beautiful, intelligent co-worker (Nicole Baharie). McQueen stages their dinner date in one, long take, pushing in ever so gradually as they awkwardly get to know each other. It's a rare moment of pure intimacy, and it'll make you hold your breath wondering how long it can last.
But as is true of many addicts, whether they're hooked on alcohol, pills or any other substance, Brandon must hit bottom before he can begin to ponder the possibility of redemption. His descent has its shocking moments but it ultimately feels tedious and self-indulgent, which turns "Shame" into a cross between "American Psycho" and "Eyes Wide Shut." The cool precision of the film's earlier scenes gives way to melodrama and leaves you feeling pummeled. Perhaps that was the point, but it's off-putting.
Fassbender always finds subtlety within the character regardless of the situation, though. And between this, "A Dangerous Method" and "Jane Eyre," he's proven in one year alone that he can do pretty much anything, and do it with startling masculine grace.
"Shame," a Fox Searchlight release, is rated NC-17 for some explicit sexual content. Running time: 99 minutes. Three stars out of four.