Their eyes meet. They are seated across from each other on a New York subway train, but it's immediately apparent each of them is imagining how much closer they could get. She smiles shyly while glancing at him slyly. He stares at her intently, almost — but not quite — smiling. In the silence, you can almost hear their blood boiling and the crackle of electricity in the stale air.
The man is Brandon (Michael Fassbender) and the woman (Lucy Walters) has no name.
Many of Brandon's conquests in “Shame” are similarly anonymous. Just as the jaguar doesn't make a habit of chatting with its prey, Brandon avoids chatter when he can communicate in other ways. If you want to see Brandon squirm, send him out on a date; faced with having to make small talk with his co-worker, the bewitching Marianne (Nicole Beharie), Brandon is as awkward as a teenager at his first school dance.
Director Steve McQueen's simultaneously searing and chilling film has attracted attention because of its NC-17 rating. But the real high-voltage content in “Shame” comes from what we don't see. Although “Shame” provides an explicit portrait of Brandon's addiction to all things erotic, it refuses to disclose the exact nature of the fascinating central relationship in his life, the connection with his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), a bohemian who's sometimes flighty and just as often fiery.
When these two are together under the wrong circumstances, the atmosphere is charged with an almost toxic tension. The screenplay by McQueen and Abi Morgan leaves us to guess exactly what happened in their pasts, but it's safe to assume it was something unsavory. Although they seem to be completely different — he's slick and low-key; she's rough around the edges and erratic — a closer look reveals they're both bedeviled by insatiable appetites: They are compelled to chase what they think will bring them pleasure, even if that pursuit leads them down the most painful roads.
“We're not bad people,” Sissy rationalizes. “We just come from a bad place.”
Fassbender and Mulligan give astonishingly vivid performances, masterfully modulating their emotions and sustaining a sometimes frightening level of friction through the lengthy takes McQueen uses to tell the story. “Shame” is both highly cinematic (in one knockout sequence McQueen's persistent camera follows Brandon as he jogs down block after block) and semi-theatrical in the demands it makes on the actors.
The movie's most unsettling moment arrives when Sissy delivers an elegiac version of “New York, New York” at an upscale lounge where Brandon and his boss, David (the excellent James Badge Dale), are having cocktails. Midway through the number, McQueen cuts away to Brandon's face and allows us to see how every note of the song is hitting him like a drop of hydrochloric acid. While the aggressively enthusiastic David cheers, Brandon fights back tears and, one suspects, decades of repressed feelings.
“You force me into a corner and you trap me,” Brandon will later tell Sissy. “I'm trying to help you,” she replies.
But neither of them seems genuinely capable of compassion. The shame at the core of “Shame” is that while Sissy and Brandon know exactly how to get under each other's skins, they will never understand each other's minds.