Story highlights

"Shame" is a penetrating, deeply unsettling look at addiction and obsession

Brandon (Michael Fassbender) is constantly in pain; sex is the only relief

He is thrown off the rails by a visit from his equally but differently damaged sister

CNN  — 

Books, movies, magazines and newspapers repeatedly refer to addiction, usually concerning drugs or alcohol.

It is only recently, in the modern realm of celebrity addictions that the public discourse has added sex to the list of potential afflictions (see: Tiger Woods, David Duchovny) and the general public is still rather slow on acceptance.

How can something as fun as sex be an addiction, you ask? The answer is, any addiction is potentially destructive, turning something enjoyable, like a pint of beer or an intimate evening into something entirely different. Feeling compelled can take the joy out of anything.

“Shame,” the excellent and profoundly disturbing sophomore film (following 2008’s highly-regarded “Hunger”) from English director Steve McQueen, is basically a character study of two damaged souls and their relationships both with each other and the world around them. It’s a penetrating and deeply unsettling look at addiction, obsession and self-destruction.

Brandon (Michael Fassbender) is an upwardly-mobile, thirtysomething New Yorker who just happens to spend every waking moment that he’s not otherwise occupied with work, engaged in some sort of sexual activity. Pornography, escorts, random encounters, group sex, masturbation … all are fair game. He is an addict by any definition of the word and lest you consider sex addiction as a comparatively harmless addiction compared with, say, drugs or alcohol, think again.

It’s as if he’s constantly in pain and sex is the only way to stop the agony, to shut his emotional life away in a box. It’s routine self-numbing, and however charming or chatty Brandon may be in public, it’s all just a means to an end – the search for sexual release.

Maintaining a tenuous balancing act between his work life and his life as an addict, Brandon is thrown off the rails by a visit from his equally but differently damaged younger sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan).

The two have a past. Something has happened in their childhood that has shaped their lives and their relationship and each has dealt with it in a different way. While we might be able to read into their behavior somewhat, we are largely left to imagine what that past might contain.

While Brandon has buried his emotions in sexual release, Sissy is the opposite and wears hers on her sleeve, along with scars from a past of cutting and perhaps, suicide attempts. She is all externalized emotions, a gadabout to Brandon’s stoic. She’s a nightclub performer and extrovert, the exact opposite of her brother’s bottled-up persona, and her visit upsets his apple cart completely.

In this oil-and-water sibling relationship, all he wants is for her to take life seriously and exhibit some responsibility, while she’s trying to get him to loosen up and have some fun. It seems as though neither is capable of doing what the other wants and both are eminently self-destructive.

He is used to his solo sex life: He has an extensive porn collection, uses escorts frequently and visits Internet sex sites, all of which are interrupted by Sissy’s visit. She has no idea of his addiction and when she stumbles onto it, things go pear-shaped, but fast.

Fassbender’s performance is not entirely unlike the one he gives in David Cronenberg’s “A Dangerous Method” in that much of his character’s emotional life goes on beneath the surface. However, in “Shame” it’s reversed. While his portrayal of Carl Jung in the Cronenberg film came alive when he was with Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), Brandon shuts down when he’s in sexual situations and the only person who can coax an emotion out of him is Sissy – and that emotion usually is anger.

Sissy, on the other hand, is just looking for some love, caring and protection from her big brother. It’s clear the two don’t see each other very often, otherwise she’d know that Brandon is the last person to go to for those things and the last to understand what she needs.

Carey Mulligan more than holds her own against yet another impressive 2011 performance from Fassbender, giving one of the best female performances in a year rife with them. A decent shot at a best supporting actress Oscar nomination, her Sissy is an open wound, raw and emotionally unguarded and working without a safety net.

For his part, Fassbender inhabits Brandon like a less-homicidal version of Patrick Bateman (“American Psycho”). Cool, calm and collected, his emotions buried … until they aren’t and they leap out of him in a torrent. Like any addict, he’s forever searching for something to soothe his pain.

The third major character in “Shame” is New York City, and McQueen shows its cold, bleak and rather lonely side. If you’ve lived there for any length of time, you ought to understand: For such a large and vibrant city, it can make you feel like you’re the last person on earth.

McQueen uses the subways and dark, outer borough streets, bars and clubs to great effect, leaving most of the city (and most of its occupants) outside a tight frame and out of focus. No sweeping, glorious views of the skyline, but rather tight shots of Brandon on the subway or in a club. Even many of the sex scenes are shot as a collection of limbs and faces and breasts and other various body parts so you often aren’t exactly sure where one person ends and another begins.

As for said sex scenes, they are anything but sexy. By the time the most graphic of Brandon’s encounters occurs, arousal doesn’t even enter the mind. Much how “Leaving Las Vegas” was unlikely to cause most people to reach for a vodka on the rocks, “Shame” is not going to be the cause for much late-night pillow talk. On the other hand, it may just make you reach for that drink.

“Shame” is rated NC-17 (no one under 17 admitted). There’s a lot of graphic sex, all sorts of nudity and the subject matter is pretty damn dark.