If they had an Oscar for most courageous performance by an actor, Michael Fassbender would have two in his possession. One for “Hunger” (2008) and another for his latest film, “Shame.” His portrayal of a tortured sex addict is one of the most raw and riveting performances I’ve ever seen.
Fassbender teams up, once again, with the visual artistic director, Steve McQueen, in a character study of an empty man. Brandon (Fassbender) is a handsome New York businessman who lives in a sterile apartment. There are no pictures on the walls, no photos on the nightstand. He’s a man with no connections.
He does connect with hookers, Internet porn and one-night stands. But Brandon is completely incapable of having a relationship, including one with his only sister, Sissy (the charismatic Carey Mulligan). When she shows up unexpectedly at his apartment, Brandon is enraged. We immediately sense something’s not kosher between Sissy and Brandon when being nude in front of one another isn’t uncomfortable for either party. They’re definitely damaged individuals, but we never learn why.
“Shame” is a sexually explicit film but not a turn-on. The sheer desperation exhibited by both Brandon and Sissy is so sad to witness that the sex becomes almost irrelevant. I was reminded of James Caan’s character in “The Gambler” while Brandon seeks out more dangerous and kinky encounters. There’s a hunger but never any satiation. At the end of the film, Brandon has an opportunity to begin anew and lead a life possibly devoid of this endless shame. As the camera fixates on Brandon’s face, his ambiguous countenance belies his choice.
McQueen’s propensity for using extreme close-ups works brilliantly in conveying the emotions that his characters feel. The pain of the shame that Sissy and Brandon own need not even be articulated. In one particular scene, Sissy performs a heart-breaking rendition of “New York, New York” as Brandon weeps. The close-up of both their faces exhibits a multitude of shared emotions suggesting, perhaps, some love between them once existed.
Both Fassbender and Mulligan give ferocious performances, but Fassbender’s will linger with you like a haunting melody. His portrayal of a hollow man is akin to looking at an open wound. One cannot turn away from watching it bleed.
The relatively unknown Fassbender has become a hot commodity as of late. He made five films in 2011, all of which have received critical acclaim. He even snagged a Golden Globe nomination for “Shame” this year. In an interview he stated being worried that people are going to be “Fassbendered out.” No way.