Watching Shame, the new film by Hunger director and visual artist Steve McQueen, I was instantly drawn back to Requiem for a Dream, Darren Aronofsky’s full-blown exploration of the perils of drug addiction and its corrosion of a person’s physical and mental facilities. However, while Requiem for a Dream dealt mostly with the physical impacts of addiction, such as the mind and body shutting down—and did so memorably, it must be said—Shame is more interested in the place that addiction has in the addict’s life, emotionally and mentally.
Brandon (Michael Fassbender) is a man whose life is clearly a little bit askew. He has anonymous sex with anonymous women, he ignores daily phone calls from his estranged sister, and he lives completely alone in a lifeless apartment. The one thing that’s truly amiss in all this is his debilitating sex addiction, which he feeds with a constant stream of porn sites and the occasional jerk-off in his work bathroom. Other than this addiction, he isn’t that different from your average upper middle class white guy, and is functioning well enough. That is, until his sister bursts into his apartment and his life
Sissy (Carey Mulligan), a drifting nightclub singer, is the opposite of him in many ways; she’s open, needy, and full of life. Despite this, there’s a palpable intimacy between the pair, thanks to the chemistry between Fassbender and Mulligan; they act and move with each other like people who’ve grown up together and grown close. Although the film is undoubtedly about Brandon and his addiction, Sissy proves a dark counterpoint to Brandon. We’re all but explicitly told that she’s just as damaged as he is, but in more obvious ways: she’s having issues with her ex-boyfriend, she has little criss-crosses up her arm, and an insatiable need for affection that is striking in relation to Brandon’s own need—hidden from everybody else. Both of their issues, and their closeness, seem to come from some trauma in their past, but the film thankfully never exposits what happened. It simply shows us that these people are damaged, and then goes on to examine what that damage means for them now.
As with the formal daring of Hunger, McQueen has very clear control over the film’s style. He’s just as content to follow Brandon around his apartment, turning off the vinyl record player or getting out of his work clothes, as he is to mess around with the chronology of a night to get us inside Brandon’s head. Although it is heavily stylised, with some gorgeous cinematography from Sean Bobbitt, there are also moments where McQueen dials it right back to get to the heart of the scene. The most effective of these is the much talked about scene where Sissy sings “New York, New York” in a glamourous restaurant while Brandon looks on. Mulligan’s wry smile when she creaks out “make it there” is as telling as anything we get told about either of them throughout the film, as is Brandon’s refusal to accept or feel any of what she’s singing until one tear ekes its way out of him. In the hands of Mulligan—who is definitely no Minnelli or Sinatra but a lovely vocalist in her own right—the slowed-down version of the song becomes a dirge: neither Brandon nor Sissy have made it, and it’s unlikely that they’re going to.
It’d be remiss of me to finish without singling out the performances in Shame. Both Fassbender and Mulligan can boast incredible turns in their relatively short careers, but they do their best work here. Fassbender conveys just how hard this addiction has afflicted Brandon, and shows both the layers and deceptions required for him to keep it up, and the tender, intelligent person sadly covered up by it all. On the other hand, Mulligan is looser than she’s ever been, making the character’s mercurial shifts of mood feel natural, and she gets year after painful year of subtext behind the line, “We’re not bad people. We just come from a bad place.” A standout, in a smaller but no less vital role, is Nicole Beharie as Fassbender’s co-worker, whom she dates at one point. She imbues the character with a warm aloofness and a wary knowledge that gives the section of the film a much greater weight: we see what Brandon could have without his addiction.
Shame is about addiction as much as Requiem for a Dream is about addiction. Crucially though, Shame is more invested in the psychology of addiction, and kudos to McQueen and co-writer Abi Morgan for not being didactic about Brandon or his particular experience, and what exactly it means to be an addict. It shows us that Brandon’s addiction is no less real or controllable than Sissy’s damage. It’s what’s borne of his damage, and it fills an absence in his life. As Brandon sits on the subway once more, Shame gives us a final haunting statement: addiction isn’t something that can be cured by going cold turkey or by pretending it isn’t there; it’s a constant struggle that is as core to the addict’s life as anything else is.