Eye contact is how it begins — a shared glance on the subway, maybe followed by a smile but always cranked up from a glance to a penetrating stare.
Brandon, played with a chilling allure by Michael Fassbender, is an old hand at this game — hands touching, not by accident, a gaze so nakedly predatory that a pretty woman might be moved to shift in her seat, cross her legs and get off at the next stop. But not always. Sometimes — oftentimes — there's sex.
And when there isn't, Brandon is compulsively going at it in front of his porn-playing laptop, in the shower or the restroom at the office. This isn't sex. This isn't normal. He knows it, and this is his shame.
Shame, the latest collaboration between Fassbender and British artist-turned-filmmaker Steve McQueen — their Hunger was as close to the IRA prison hunger strikes as anyone would care to get — is a creepy but poignant descent into sexual dysfunction.
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Brandon must have conquests, must find hookers he can hire by the pair, must have voyeuristic assignations in high-rise hotel windows. Sex is beyond compulsion, beyond obsession for him.
It's interfering with work, causing him to prey on women who reject his womanizing boss (James Badge Dale), worried all the while about what manner of porn others will spy on his work computer. (In a tiny part, one of the women who rejects Brandon is played by Lexington native Rachel Farrar.)
We have barely begun to wonder how he got this way when the phone messages start: "It's me. Pick up. Pick up."
A jilted lover? No. It's Brandon's hard-drinking, loose-loving, lounge-singing sister Sissy, a broken young woman given a winsome, needy touch by Carey Mulligan. Few words are exchanged when she finally reaches him, finally talks him into letting her stay with him for a few days. But there is history here. As "normal" as she seems, we can't help but think that's just in comparison to her freak of a brother.
Rarely has a movie been so sexual without being remotely sexy. Rarely has a guy who might be admired in a sex comedy as a "playa" seemed more pathetic with each fresh conquest.
McQueen, who co-wrote the script to Shame with Abi Morgan, dwells on the sordid even as his film gets at the obvious. Brandon is sick, he can't commit and even thinking about connecting with someone who wants a relationship with him unnerves him.
"What's your longest relationship?"
"You have to commit, actually give it a shot."
"I did. For four months."
It's a fascinating, off-putting mystery of a movie, with just enough hints of what binds Brandon and Sissy and what makes him keep her at a distance. And as Brandon, Fassbender lets us see the pain and sense the sort of earlier life that must have left him this damaged. It's a riveting performance, one of the gutsiest of 2011 and not just because of the nudity. Fassbender has the courage to let us see this guy's pain but never quite want to let him off the hook.