Shame / Steve McQueen / 2011 /

Active Ingredients: Powerhouse performance; Visual artistry; Emotional subtlety
Side Effects: A bit overstuffed; Melodrama

British director Steve McQueen’s first feature was 2008’s gut-wrenching Hunger. He’s taken his time between projects, and it’s clear that he and co-writer Abi Morgan have carefully thought through his followup Shame. The film is about a sex addict, and while McQueen and Morgan have taken the time to truly understand addiction, even more impressive are the many subtle shades of shame and their reverberations across the life of the film’s protagonist. Shame, then, is the perfect title not only as an allusion to the guilt of sex addiction, but to the shame of the addict’s profound loneliness and inability to truly connect with others.

[Shame plays at the New York Film Festival today and Sunday.]

Michael Fassbender stars as Brandon, an Irish New Yorker caught in a dangerous spiral. Fassbender has appeared in 4 films this year and this is by far his best performance, rivaling his turn as IRA leader Bobby Sands in Hunger. He’s a ferocious and brave actor, equally magnetic in scenes of intensity and subtly. What’s most impressive in Shame is that both McQueen and Fassbender aren’t satisfied with simply portraying sex addiction, although this risque film doesn’t shy away from carnality; rather the two dig much deeper, exposing the nuanced self-loathing that subconsciously motivates Brandon’s actions.

Shame is also an essential New York film. McQueen finds in the hazy skyline, desolate nighttime streets and seedy back alleys of the city a perfect expression of Brandon’s  self-inflicted torture. With the same arresting visual artistry evident in Hunger, McQueen traces Brandon’s journey in reflections, coolly-lit closeups and an array of long-takes and tracking shots which are never distracting. Watch, for instance, his patience during a breathy vocal performance at a jazz club, and the power he derives from the one cutaway he affords himself. Though Shame can feel a bit overstuffed and uneven at times, this is the work of a visionary young director and a promising voice for years to come.