Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, and Lucy Walters star in a film written and directed by Steve McQueen.


It’s been a banner year for elliptical films. Shame, which most people rightly consider notorious for its abundance of graphic sex, might actually be better understood as part of this new film movement in which less is more — at least in terms of plot, back-story, and character motivation. Other good examples of this trend would be Tree of Life, which invited us to invent a whole movie from flurries of visual hints and muttered monologues, and Drive with a no-name protagonist who gives no hints as to what drives him. Increasingly, filmmakers are making us do the boring plot work as they cut fast between action and sex; in a tough economy you’ve got to make cuts somewhere.

Shame is all about drive. We watch Brandon (Michael Fassbender) hump everything: his own hands, prostitutes (sometimes in pairs), and not always women either. Gradually we learn of his gigantic inventory of porn at home and in his office. Into this wonderland of skin raunch arrives Sissy (Carey Mulligan, who also appeared in Drive), Brandon’s sister, who rivals his debauchery with emotional cravings. After a riveting and destructive sibling showdown we watch saddened and curious because, hints of incest aside, we don’t know what crazes them. “We’re not bad,” says Sissy, “we just come from a bad place.” Where we wonder? Ireland is all the film tells us.

Yet Shame has compelling force, and a visual potency unmatched by anything besides Drive and Tree of Life. It’s hot and cold, with Kubrick-ian moments of unblinking exposition, such as a three-minute close-up shots of Mulligan slowly singing “New York, New York.” We follow Fassbender jogging to Madison Square Garden in another intensely long tracking shot. It’s utterly fascinating for some reason, as are the occasional moments of tenderness in the Gotham landscape, like a woman on a subway and Brandon’s one real date, an occurrence that ends in frozen blues. We’re not sure why we’re watching, or even what we’re looking at, and it ultimately reminds of a famous Shakespeare quote. “The expense of spirit in a waste of shame,” he wrote in his Sonnet 129, “is lust in action.” It’s enough, somehow, to make for compelling film.