The artist/director Steve McQueen had a piece in The Quick and the Dead, a 2009 exhibit at the Walker Art Center. In McQueen’s Running Thunder (2007), a horse lies dead in a field. A short video of the corpse is looped continuously, so that the horse lies in suspended animation, never alive but also never decomposing. It’s a powerful piece, and it gets done in a few minutes what takes two tedious hours in McQueen’s new feature Shame.
At the center of Shame—penned by McQueen with Abi Morgan—are a pair of sex addicts: siblings Brandon (Michael Fassbender) and Sissy (Carey Mulligan) Sullivan. I could stop right there with the plot summary, not because I’m afraid of revealing spoilers, but because there are none: that last sentence pretty much sums up what Shame has to tell us. Imagine what it might be like to be a sex addict who has a sexy sibling who’s also a sex addict, and you can fairly well imagine the range of issues and episodes that constitute Shame.
Brandon lives in a swank New York condo, and at the film’s outset he seems to be on top of the world, effortlessly bedding women with the practiced touch of a man who’s learned it’s best to let them come to you. With his blithe confidence and corporate crispness, Fassbender cuts a Patrick-Bateman-like figure, an impression underscored by his character’s predilection for 1980s music—though in an ironic update to CD-loving yuppie Bateman, Brandon Sullivan prefers vinyl.
When Sissy arrives on the scene, we’re at first unsure whether she’s actually Brandon’s sister: she’s called “Sissy,” but she stalks him like an ex-lover and seems a little more a lot more comfortable being naked around him than the average sister is around her adult brother. As the film progresses, we learn a little more—but not a lot more—about the siblings’ relationship as we watch both of them try again and again to escape the orbit of their addiction.
This all sounds a lot more interesting—and sexier—than it is on screen. McQueen has the ingredients for a fascinating film, but what he gives us instead is a series of overlong set pieces. What other directors might have sketched in a line or a gesture, McQueen shows us at laborious length: even the orgy gets boring. The most interesting scenes are the ones between the two siblings, but it ultimately becomes clear that the relationship hasn’t developed in years, and it’s not about to start. Sissy wants to talk, but Brandon is sealed off: to her, to himself, and to us. We understand why, but in the end we’re left as frustrated as Sissy.
Fassbender and Mulligan are both compelling in their own ways; strong impressions are also left by Nicole Beharie as a woman Brandon attempts to have a genuine relationship with, and by James Badge Dale as Fassbender’s philandering boss. In the end, though, they’re all just beating off a dead horse.