Michael Fassbender is busy. The German-born, Irish-bred international actor has four feature films released or about to be released in the US in 2011: Jane Eyre (as Rochester); X-Men: First Class (Magneto); the upcoming A Dangerous Method (psychoanalysis pioneer Carl Gustav Jung); and Shame. The latter is set to automatically become the most notorious because of its subject matter — it’s the chronicle of a New York City sex addict — but in fundamental ways it’s the weakest of the lot.
Director and art-world sensation Steve McQueen (he made Hunger in 2008, also with Fassbender) and co-writer Abi Morgan fashion the everyday routine of office worker Brandon to be as hectic as possible, with extreme close-ups, urgent jump cuts, etc., except when Brandon takes drugs and the action slows to a drip. His life resembles that of one of those investment brokers we love to hate in topical “recession” dramas, only without the work — all he seems to do is pick up women in bars (including chanteuse Carey Mulligan), eye-grope women on the subway, masturbate to Internet porn, visit sex clubs, hire escorts, and so on.
None of this brings a smile to his face. In fact we can see he hates every minute of his empty, meaningless existence. If he didn’t hate it, if he got a tremendous buzz tearing off outcall girls two at a time, he’d be totally unredeemable and thus unfit to be the subject of a major motion picture. It’s a requirement of every “serious” social-problem movie like Shame that guys like Brandon spend the time in which they’re not tending to the needs of their penises looking dejected and reaching out, however feebly, for help.
Fassbender throws himself into Brandon’s downward spiral with the same precision-masquerading-as-abandon he used in the silly costumers Centurion and 300, which is to say even bad filmmakers get their money’s worth from him. When the screenplay is good, Fassbender polishes it further. When the director has delusions of grandeur like McQueen and the story squishes when it walks, all anyone can do is play it through to the end.