Carey Mulligan sings a slow, torchy rendition of New York, New York in Shame, director Steve McQueen allowing the entire song to unfurl as the camera peers into her face and then into that of her brother, played by Michael Fassbender, and we wonder why these two urbane siblings are so shattered by this musty anthem about how if you make it there, you can make it anywhere. Fassbender and Mulligan play Brandon and Sissy Sullivan, and if they’re not the most convincing pair of New Jerseyans (Fassbender’s Irishness, at least, is written in as part of his character’s background) they are terribly believable as two people engaged in ongoing and so far hopeless acts of reinvention.
We never learn what happened to them growing up, other than that it was rough — “We’re not bad people. We just come from a bad place,” Sissy pleads — but the marks it’s left may be indelible. She wears her damage closer to the surface, not just as self-harm marks on her skin but in the carelessness with which she treats herself — she’s discarded by two men over the course of the film, if you’re not counting her brother, pleading with a lover who breaks with her over the phone and then hopping in bed with Brandon’s skeezy married boss David (James Badge Dale) the next night.
Brandon appears to have his life more together, though it’s just a facade of control, with his incomprehensible high-powered job, his perfect suits and his soulless white box of a bachelor’s condo on 31st Street. The closest thing he has to a friend is David, who just uses him as a wingman at bars and has no compunctions about bagging his sister and then ignoring her calls. And despite the protective shell of success with which he’s surrounded himself, Brandon’s as much of a desperate disaster as his sister, his Manhattan lifestyle only a lux version of an addict’s sanctuary within which he can compulsively fuck his way through a vast array of women, some picked up at bars and others paid to be there.
It’s a lifestyle that’s only sustainable in isolation, and Sissy’s presence in Brandon’s space, her awareness of the person he was and still is chips away at his hard-won, unstable existence. Shame is about a sex addict, but to call it a film about sex addiction puts too much weight on this portrait’s barely sketched in cause and effect — whatever happened to Brandon, it left him obsessed with the oblivion offered by physical gratification and unable to connect with people on any other level. Shame is an achingly sad film about the failure of the belief that if you could just get away and start somewhere new, you’d be whole again. Brandon and Sissy can leave the past behind, but they can’t get away from themselves.