We all have our self-destructive qualities that manifest themselves through the compulsive behaviors we exhibit to ourselves and others. Some are decidedly more destructive than others. For one person it may seem as innocent as an obsessive need to engage in gossip. For another it’s overeating, drinking, smoking, gambling, or drug abuse. Who knows why we continue to engage these compulsions having long since received any reasonable amount of happiness from them. At one point they provided an escape, but now they only serve to imprison us.
Such is the plight of Brandon (Michael Fassbender), a 30-something bachelor living in New York who, on the surface, appears to have it all. He is good looking, has a good job, should have a good life. At least that’s what we’ve been programmed to believe throughout our lives and years of pop culture consumption. But that’s not really the case, is it? Anyone with a reasonable sense of self and social awareness recognizes that the recipe for happiness changes drastically depending on the cook. The blueprint for disaster, however, seems to be pretty consistent across the board. I would characterize it as an inability to recognize and change the aspects of ourselves that cause of grief. Simple enough to remedy, right? But what do you do when the aspect that causes grief is the only thing you can remember deriving any semblance of joy from? And, moreover, the only thing you can imagine ever deriving any sense of joy from. Very often the answer is: You become an addict.
Brandon’s addiction is sex, or, more precisely, a compulsive need to orgasm. The means that get him there matter little, as we find out by witnessing his many orgasms throughout the film. From the moment he wakes up it is all he is able to think about. In the shower in the morning, he masturbates. On the subway to work, he can’t take his eyes off of a woman. He is thinking about sex. She knows it. He knows she knows it. The engagement ring on her finger does nothing to discourage his compulsion. At work, he seems to have things under control, even earning praise from his boss. But we discover that his computer has been taken away because it has a virus from all the “filthy” stuff on the hard drive. He can’t even make it through the work day without sneaking off to the restroom to masturbate yet again.
Up until now, Brandon’s exploits have, for the most part, remained unknown to those around him. That all changes when his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), shows up at his apartment unannounced and asks to stay for a few days lamenting she has no where else to go. He reluctantly agrees, but it doesn’t take long for him to discover that it’s easier to lie to yourself when no one else is watching. Theirs is a troubled relationship, to say the least. Each possessing a distinctly different personality that lends itself to a unique, and, at the same time, familiar pain. Sissy’s insistent search for companionship has left her all alone while Brandon’s aversion to relationship has done the same. We are driven to suspect that a great deal of the pain they experience stems from their childhood. And, indeed, a great deal of all of our pain does. Unfortunately, knowing the cause of something does not always lend itself to an effective solution, and many times only serves to further torment the tormented. This is the root of shame.
Rarely have I been this excited by a writer/director. Steve McQueen (Hunger) seems to have a masterful eye for beautifully constructed shots with the innate ability to convey powerful emotions in a minimalist way. Notice the close-up of Brandon’s face as he climaxes. A pleasurable experience for most of us. For him, it’s torture. Likewise, Fassbender is phenomenally adept at engendering empathy for his characters. And I suspect anyone who watches Shame will see a piece of themselves in Brandon.