Sex addiction is a tough sell, dramatically speaking—no matter how empty the experience for our tortured, depressive hero, all we in the audience see is somebody getting off while we (presumably) aren’t. It’s particularly hard to empathize with Brandon (Michael Fassbender), the perpetually mortified protagonist of Shame, whose every sidelong glance at a woman in a bar or a subway car is returned with a gaze of unabashed lust. Still, the guy’s miserable, and so is his younger sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), who abruptly appears in his New York apartment needing a place to crash for a while. Together and separately, they embark upon mostly nocturnal odysseys that never seem to fill the void left in them by a troubled childhood, to which the film barely alludes.
Director and co-writer Steve McQueen (no relation to the late actor) previously worked with Fassbender on Hunger, a heavily aestheticized depiction of the 1981 Irish Republican Army hunger strike. Here, again, McQueen proves himself a master of mood—when Brandon jogs obsessively across town, the streets of midtown Manhattan seem to reflect his loneliness. But even if you can feel for a guy who’s unhappy about all the action he’s getting, Shame never really amounts to much more than a pity party, with Fassbender reduced to making sad orgasm faces and Mulligan stranded in a thinly conceived portrait of sheer neediness. With so much talent expended on so little, the film’s title ultimately seems all too apt.