Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender) has an addiction. He does not struggle against it, seek therapy to cure it, or deny its existence; he learns to cope with it and attempts to shape his life around it to create routine and give it space. Brandon is addicted to sex but appears to be a bit more OCD about it than the regular sex addict looking to score at the club on a weekend. He has a handle on his issue enough to know specifically what he wants. This specificity is most likely his limiting factor when it comes to real life relationships and intimacy, but Brandon’s life seems mostly manageable with the boundaries he sets for himself and the rigid schedule he follows.
This routine is shattered, however, when a person whose phone messages he has been ignoring suddenly shows up in his apartment, his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan). There is a hospital bracelet around her wrist but the audience does not know why. It appears Sissy has interrupted Brandon’s life before but the audience is unaware of that as well. There is a lot the audience is not let in on. Shame is set strictly in the present. There are no flashbacks, no conversations discussing the past, and only vague references to any events ever occurring from a day earlier than yesterday.
Brandon has a job, goes to the office every day, seems successful, but we do not know what it is he does. His preferred M.O. is to get through the day, perhaps enjoy a drink after work, and then settle in front of his laptop for a night full of pornography to watch. Sometimes he ends up with a bar conquest engaging in sex underneath a bridge or pressed up against a window facing the world, but usually it is the laptop sequence at night.
Yet, Shame is not expressly about Brandon’s all encompassing addiction — it’s more about his lifestyle, how Sissy affects it, and how he responds to his sister in her extended hour of need. Her arrival throws a wrench into this entire schedule. Since she is around, Brandon’s boundaries, self-imposed limitations, and routine are altered, which in turn alters his judgment and decision making skills. Brandon also has some self destructive tendencies which Sissy does not intentionally trigger, but she certainly does not dampen them either.
Unfortunately, the pacing and movement of the story stutters greatly throughout the film. Think of a pebble skipping across the water. When it strikes the water, something happens and the water ripples away from the impact. In Shame, this takes the form of a long conversation between Brandon and Sissy, his boss, or an awkward first date. However, when the pebble is airborne between water strikes, nothing happens. Absolutely nothing. There are too many extended sequences of Brandon accomplishing inconsequential tasks: Tracking shots following Brandon jog the streets of Manhattan, stare at a screen, stare out the window, or just walk around and ponder. The only reason the movie has the buzz it does in the public sphere is because of its NC-17 rating (which it rightfully deserves).
There are numerous and explicit sex scenes, frequent shots of Fassbender in the altogether, and direct discussions of everything in between. It is refreshing to see a film which reflects reality as well as Shame does concerning sex, but just because this is a rare occurrence, does not make it automatically superior to a PG-13 or an R-rated film which tends to hide and sneak around these matters. Nonetheless, if you are looking to see those real situations addressed (or perhaps undressed) fully, Shame is a fine way to experience them; I cannot, however, fully recommend the movie because it is awfully dull during those long portions of nothingness between said situations.