Near the beginning of filmmaker Steve McQueen's granite-toned second feature, "Shame," we witness an urban predator in action. Brandon, a Manhattanite played by Michael Fassbender, eyes a stranger seated across from him on the subway. He stares. She notices. He smiles. She responds. Before the next stop he engineers a moment of physical proximity. It's over before anything has a chance to develop, yet this is the latest metaphoric notch in this sex addict's belt — a belt that, throughout "Shame," always seems to be sliding to the floor near one bed or another.
Fassbender's a splendid actor, and in "Shame" he has a formidable sparring partner in Carey Mulligan, who plays Brandon's flailing sister, Sissy. Despite their family ties they're virtual strangers, having drifted apart after sharing a childhood of unspecified trauma. Sissy has a history of self-injury and some talent as a torch singer. (At one point, a turning point for the eerily guarded Brandon, she performs the slowest, saddest version of "New York, New York" possible.)
Into the pristine soullessness of Brandon's apartment and psyche she arrives, a bundle of nerve endings and taunts and distress signals. They act more like on-again, off-again lovers than siblings; they're so used to fighting, or using, or being used, they've forgotten how to simply be.
"Shame" chronicles Brandon's attempts to keep his heavily but not healthily sexualized life in its separate boxes. He stores endless reams of pornography on his computer at work and scads of hard-core magazines at home. He often pays professionals for his intercourse. A rare dinner date with a co-worker played beautifully by Nicole Beharie, shot in long, languorous takes, reveals Brandon to be as relationally incompetent as he is craftily seductive.
There is a good movie to be made about someone like Brandon, especially with someone like Fassbender, a performer of exceptional technical facility and a fascinating sense of reserve. McQueen's isn't quite it. It's scrupulously crafted but almost comically self-serious. With Harry Escott's ticking-time-bomb musical score, and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt's chilly, blue-gray palette making New York seem like the grimmest place on earth to be a sex addict, you expect "Shame" to spin into "American Psycho" territory.
McQueen and Escott collaborated with Fassbender on McQueen's impressive debut feature, "Hunger," about Irish Republican Army hunger-striker Bobby Sands. A visual artist who has worked in various mediums, McQueen controls each frame like a fiend. Figures are typically viewed in isolation, in hallways or standing by windows, under cold light or gray skies, in lingering moments of stasis or slowly dawning panic.
"Through our research, we found that there was no common denominator in their stories that led them down this path," "Shame" producer Iain Canning said in the film's production notes, regarding the estimated 24 million sex addicts in America. He added: "We wanted to honor that diversity of experience in Brandon by not addressing individual histories but the collective psyche behind the addiction."
This is the limitation of "Shame." Fassbender finds shrewd gradations of anger and hurt in the role at the faintly beating heart of this modern intimacy fable, yet Brandon feels theoretical. He's lacking not just in emotional depth (that much is intentional); on the page, as fashioned by McQueen and co-writer Abi Morgan, he's short on dramatic specificity. I admire McQueen's way with a single take and a slyly roving camera eye. But "Shame," to which the Motion Picture Association of America in its infinite and puritanical lack of wisdom awarded an NC-17 rating, settles for stripping down a lean story to the essentials, and Fassbender to his.
'Shame' -- 2 1/2 stars
MPAA rating: NC-17 (for some explicit sexual content)
Running time: 1:39
Opens: FridayCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun