Shame – review
Steve McQueen’s second feature of sex-addiction, self-harm and cheap thrills in New York is fluid, rigorous, serious cinema

Michael Fassbender in Steve McQueen’s film Shame.
Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan give dynamite performances inShame, a terrific second feature from the British artist Steve McQueen. Fassbender is Brandon, a sex-addicted corporate drone, directing a radioactive stare at random women across the aisle on the New York subway. Mulligan plays Sissy, his sister, who sings for her supper, self-harms for kicks and is surely pointed towards disaster. “We’re not bad people,” Sissy assures her sibling. “We just come from a bad place.”

Production year: 2011
Country: USA
Directors: Steve McQueen
Cast: Carey Mulligan, Michael Fassbender
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Specifically this place is Manhattan, which McQueen depicts as a hell of sterile offices, anonymous apartments and desperate pick-up joints, though it may conceivably refer to the world at large. Outwardly charming and confident, Brandon is soon exposed as a casualty of a bull-market culture where sex has been traded so heavily, so easily and in so many exotic flavours that the consumer has gorged himself sick. Brandon, for instance, appears to score about once a day but it’s not nearly enough because he’s immediately off to masturbate in the shower. He has a vast porn stash concealed behind his blank cupboard doors and still more buried on the hard-drive at work. “Anals, double-anals,” explains his bemused boss Dave (James Badge Dale), who has been charged with overseeing the investigation. “Cream pies … I don’t even know what that is, exactly.”

Not that Dave is any kind of angel himself. Brandon’s boss cheerfully neglects his own family in order to hit on passing women and then promptly beds down with Sissy, who has recently landed at her brother’s apartment. Disgusted – and perhaps even excited – by the noise coming through the wall, Brandon escapes for a jog through the nocturnal streets. McQueen traces his huffing, puffing odyssey with one of the most mesmerising extended tracking shots since Touch of Evil.

Shame feels less formal, less rooted in the language of the art installation than McQueen’s previous film, Hunger, and is all the more satisfying for that. This is fluid, rigorous, serious cinema; the best kind of adult movie. There are glimmers of American Gigolo to its pristine sheen and echoes of Midnight Cowboy to the scratchy, mutual dependence of the damaged duo at the core. For her big showstopper at a downtown nightclub, Sissy takes the stage to croon her way through a haunting, little-girl-lost rendition of New York, New York, slowing the pace and milking the pathos. Brandon sits at the back, his jaw locked, his eyes welling. In the song’s melting, dying fall, he catches a glimpse of the lie behind the tinsel and smells the inevitable death of all her dreams, and maybe his dreams as well.

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