Sex addiction is an easy term to take lightly, what with celebrities claiming its afflictions at each and every caught indiscretion. Leave it to British artist Steve McQueen to follow up 2008’s brutal Hunger with an equally emotionally wrought take on its perils.
Brandon, the protagonist, is so clearly slick, attractive, and successful that it’s hard to imagine his promiscuity as anything other than the norm. The camera captures his daily rituals—masturbating in the office bathroom, mining a prestigious collection of dirty tapes and magazines, live web chats and random street sex—all of which seem commonplace in this porn-soaked, shallowly connected world. It is with a deft eye that McQueen subtly places Brandon somewhat out of the action, close-ups revealing how removed he is from the present—during meetings and out at bars—seeming above it all. Yet as Brandon’s carefully crafted and isolated existence unravels with violence, it is clear that his desires are beyond his control.
The arrival of his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan) illuminates Brandon’s inability to properly connect. Their odd relationship is somewhat muddled by her clichéd storyline as the girl with a troubled past and an uncertain future. Here, Mulligan is cast out of character, no longer the glowing timid beauty but a fiery, unstable, and frankly badass piece of work. Luckily, Mulligan handles with far more aplomb than skeptical viewers would fear, making Sissy a woman with a complex, believable past, rather than the type of melodramatic female seen so often in lesser films.
This is McQueen’s first (and hopefully not final) film to be set in New York. To see a filmmaker encapsulate the energy, anonymity, and range of our fair city (sans obligatory establishing views or overt post-9/11 commentary) is always a treat. Brandon’s unrelenting need to fulfill his desires while remaining wholly alone is most served in the city that never sleeps. Though Shame was originally set in London, McQueen has said that “the wind carried us here,” resulting in a film that truly belongs nowhere else.