“Shame is pride’s cloak” —William Blake
The first ten or so minutes in Steve McQueen’s Shame give you a taste of Brandon Sullivan’s (Michael Fassbender) relentless bachelor lifestyle: the fancy high rise one bedroom apartment, his foolish charm; how by simply exchanging a glimpse with a woman, say, on the subway, she’s weak at the knees ready to fall for him. The way Brandon’s life operates appears ideal, as he makes a good living, goes out on the town quite frequently, and successfully supports himself in New York City. You immediately get a sense of this routine, one that has been his everyday life for years. But when his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) unexpectedly barges in on him after a fight with what seems to be either a current or past boyfriend, he abides and allows her to stay, seeing as her brother it’s almost his duty to welcome her.
Sissy causes much disruption in Brandon’s life. Not only through Brandon’s initial reaction coming home, thinking someone had broken into his house—leaving him awkwardly walking in on Sissy in the shower with a baseball bat—but throughout the entire movie Sissy’s messiness and careless habits continuously get under Brandon’s skin.
One night Brandon’s boss David (James Badge Dale; better known as his drinking buddy that gets obscenely drunk every time they go anywhere and usually ends up heckles random women) and him go out to a restaurant where Sissy is performing. She sings Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York,” in a slower, almost awkwardly slow version of the song, and for the first time you see Brandon show emotion, as Sissy’s singing brought him to tears.
As soon as Sissy finishes her song, she walks over to Brandon and David, only to find David in his normal drunken state (did we mention David’s also married?), approaching Sissy. He is very complimentary of her and her accomplishments, getting gigs at such notably classy restaurants, as Brandon stares in the background – silent, but with a fierceness.
The cab ride home gets interesting as Sissy and David are making out in the backseat and Brandon accepts, with tensity, the situation happening: his own sister is about to hook up with his boss in his own bed in his apartment.
As things are getting heavy between the two, there is an awkward moment where Brandon is taking off his pants; when you think he’s about to do something dirty, the scene cuts to him running down the street to relieve the stress of what was happening.
This is the first time you really notice that there is some sort of rage inside of Brandon, both sexually and deep down in his character. However, whatever exactly is troubling Brandon is never fully disclosed and is underlying throughout the entire movie. The way his innerness is projected through careless sex and detachment with reality is starting to reflect his increasingly chronic sexual habits as the movie progresses.
Where as it was previously seen in the beginning as normal for Brandon to randomly hook up with a woman at the club, or be flirtatious on the subway, or obsessively watch porn every night at work—wait, not to mention the fact, David had to call him down to his office to let Brandon know his work computer was spammed with pornography—these habits of his start to piece together in a more troubling issue at large.
Brandon’s, what we like to call, nymphomania, continues on throughout the movie. It becomes disturbing to watch him engage in overly indulgent sex in a way that’s desperate and untrue; it’s almost as if he tries to be well-intentioned but is taken over by this overwhelming desire to have sex.
And after a heated discussion between Sissy and Brandon, things take a drastic turn—the familial issues arise again, but never in a way that tells a full backstory. When the two storm away from each other, Brandon goes out on another one of his sexcapades, hooking up with multiple people throughout the evening and then returning only to find his sister in a crucial state.
Overall Shame shows not only the helplessness of sexual addiction, but the sickening routes people will go to achieve that ultimate feeling of desire; how secrets and hidden trauma deep inside have the potential of turning dark on us. The film has been compared to American Psycho for the way the “sex replaces the stabbing,” and is sure to leave you oddly weirded out and disgusted, in the most honest of ways.