Welcome to Monday Morning Review, a weekly feature here at Movies.com where we provide a review of a film the Monday morning after it arrives in theaters. As such, this review is written for people who have seen the film, and will discuss plot points, spoilers, etc, so read it only if you’ve seen it or if you don’t mind knowing everything that happens.
Boiled down to its essence, Shame is a film about an addict. But because Brandon, the lead character, is addicted to sex, the issue becomes confused, especially because the film ends with a question mark rather than a period.
The ending is open-ended, and intentionally so. (Steve McQueen, who directed, wrote the script with Abi Morgan.) Brandon, played by Michael Fassbender, has been through hell. To borrow two song titles by British band the Buzzcocks, Brandon is both an “Orgasm Addict” and “Hollow Inside.” He’s addicted to sex, whether it’s with prostitutes, one-night stands, or himself — he masturbates at every opportunity, even taking time during his work day to gain a measure of relief. His routine is to have sex at every opportunity, as long as the possibility of emotional intimacy is not involved.
But that lack of intimacy takes a toll on his soul. When his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) drops in on him unexpectedly and begs to stay in his tiny apartment for a few days, it becomes clear that they share a damaged past, most likely involving some kind of sexual abuse, or perhaps even incest. The clues are evident, especially when Sissy climbs into bed with Brandon one night after having sex with Brandon’s boss earlier in the evening.
By that point, we know they’re siblings, something that wasn’t apparent when Sissy first appears in the movie, naked in Brandon’s shower. She’s not concerned about her modesty, which is not necessarily unusual; some adult siblings are not terribly modest around each other. In any case, the following morning she’s constantly touching him, which makes him flinch. Initially, I mistook her to be an old lover of Brandon, but knowing that they’re siblings adds an uneasy, frankly queasy tone to the scene.
Sissy acts as a catalyst for Brandon. First he asks Marianne (Nicole Beharie), a lovely workmate, out on a date, and tries sharing personal things with her rather than just flirting and having sex. After he returns home, however, Sissy walks in on him masturbating in the bathroom, prompting an angry encounter that threatens to turn sexual.
Subsequently, he trashes his porn collection, and the next day steals Marianne away from work for a little afternoon delight. He can’t perform, though, and then can’t face Marianne. It’s much easier for him to deal with an anonymous woman — whose character is identified in the credits as “Hotel Lover” — than with someone who might actually mean something to him. He’s addicted to the act of sex, not the person with whom he’s involved. Sex is an activity that provides a temporary measure of relief from the problems he’s facing.
Brandon then begins to spiral downward. He has an extended, increasingly agonizing conversation with Sissy. Without spelling it out explicitly, he makes it clear that her presence is disturbing to him, reopening old wounds, or maybe reawakening old desires. Whatever happened, specifically, in the past, it’s directly tied to his sexual addiction as an adult, which, again, is a means of self-medicating the emotional pain that he still feels.
Endeavoring to ameliorate that pain, he heads out into the night, hell-bent on a path of self-destruction. When he talks dirty to a young woman in a bar, and then baits her boyfriend with sexual boasting, he’s asking for a beating. When he walks into a gay club with open sexual activity, it’s because he needs some kind of sexual release, and he doesn’t care if it comes from a man or a woman. Even that is not enough; he calls a prostitute and arranges a threesome, because he’s trying to make all the pain in his life go away, if only for a few hours.
While Brandon is wallowing in self-pity, Sissy reaches out to him for help, and he ignores her phone calls, just like he did at the beginning of the movie. He returns home to discover that she has attempted suicide. She survives, and in a hospital room he slides his fingers over the scars on her arm, evidence of past repeated suicide attempts. Whatever damage they suffered in their youth, whatever the specific cause, they both continue to suffer, and both want the pain to stop, by whatever means necessary.
Shame is bookended with subway scenes. At the beginning, Brandon catches the eye of a lovely blond woman, flirting without saying a word. She smiles in response, and preens a little, before catching herself; she’s wearing a wedding ring, and she moves quickly when the subway doors open, causing Brandon to lose her on the crowded staircase.
At the end, the same lovely blond woman catches Brandon’s eye. She’s dolled up, with her hair done and fresh makeup applied. Her body posture is inviting, and so is the smile on her face. She’s still wearing a wedding ring. She looks at Brandon, and he looks back, with a neutral expression. He’s at a crossroads; will he return her smile, and continue his path of self-destruction? Or will he choose a different road, and really change his ways?
We don’t know. The lingering power of Shame is that it makes us wonder what he’ll do, and feel haunted that he’ll make the wrong choice. Again.