Over and over the reviews of Steve McQueen’s Shame bemoan the fact that we don’t ever get to see Brandon’s trauma. They all want to know why Brandon and his sister are like they are. But of course, not knowing, is just the point. Brandon is driven by a desperate need for sex, a compulsion he cannot control, and that can only be relieved temporarily. This is the reality of addiction. It doesn’t matter why the addict has got this way, what matters is that the obsession be lifted by another hit of the drug. Brandon’s need for sex is no different from the next drug. And the fact that we don’t ever know why he got that way makes the fact that he did all the more convincing. He is cold, out of touch with his emotions, and to give him an original trauma would be to give him an excuse.
Michael Fassbender’s performance is chilling. Indeed, it seems to be a character that suits Fassbender’s style of acting: in the power of the actor, the character is detached, uncaring and prone to unpredictable bursts of anger. I am glad that I saw Fassbender as Brandon before I saw him as Dr Jung in A Dangerous Method. Because as the arrogant and confused Dr Jung, he is also cold and distant, but I was not as convinced by Dr Jung. As the sex addict who struggles throughout the film with his emotions, and indeed, when emotion is aroused, the fantasy falls apart, Fassbender is perfectly cast. He passes as a normal guy in a successful job. Another critic complained that we never get to see what he does for a living – this is just the point again. Brandon is so focused on the next “hit” that work is just what he does for a living.
A O Scott as one of the only critics who gets the nature of the obsession and doesn’t want more cause and affect narrative, also points to one of the film’s flaws: as always with McQueen’s films, there’s something out of kilter when a nightmare is packaged so beautifully. The tracking shot that follows Brandon across midtown Manhattan on a night run is, quite simply, breathtaking. It’s the kind of long take that McQueen excels at, and here, the energy and adrenaline that Brandon needs to burn having come home to find his sister having sex with his boss, is so perfectly captured in this scene. But, like A O Scott, I wonder if New York through tinted lenses and cinematic virtuosity is the way to represent an affliction as grim and unrelenting as Brandon’s sex addiction.
The final descent into desperation which finds Brandon having sex with a man in the back room of a club is another scene that can’t be excused. The straight white guy so desperate for sex that he has to resort to having sex with a gay man in a back room? This reeks of homophobia. And then there is the predictability of Sissy’s attempted suicide: the scars of self-mutilation that we are shown are too obviously set up as the prelude to her grand statement at the end of the film. But for all these problems, it’s a film with integrity and worth it to see Fassbender, his body, and some great shots of NY.