By the end of the film's opening, wordless sequence, Fassbender has expertly set out his stall, crafting the character of Brandon Sullivan sublimely through suggestion, expression and an intensity that only the very purest acting talent can muster. Brandon is seen making eye contact with an unnamed woman on the New York subway. The subtle flirting is traded back and forth, escalated little by little. And then things suddenly change, the woman sensing threat and becoming flustered before quickly escaping the train carriage at the next stop. Brandon pursues, no longer a man flirting with a woman but a predator desperately attempting to track his prey. The woman eludes him, and Brandon transforms again: a frustrated child who knows he has lost the game and momentarily bewildered, before heading back crestfallen to board the train once again. All the while this is intercut with candid snippets of Brandon's daily routine; his well-to-do but solitary existence in a modern, clean-cut apartment which belies the character's true life as a sex addict.
It's a performance which Fassbender sustains and develops masterfully throughout the film. Brandon is a complex character, simultaneously repulsive and genuinely sympathetic, repressed yet explosive. This is a character more intricate than the entire cast of other films put together, and yet Fassbender's execution of the part is so perfectly balanced between the excruciatingly subtle and overwhelmingly palpable as to appear effortless. It's a performance around which the rest of Shame is built, but the combined skill of both Fassbender as performer and McQueen as director means that it never threatens to overpower the film's many other superb elements.
Under the direction of another, Shame could at any point very easily slip into the exploitative and tasteless realm of cinema, but McQueen is so firmly in control of what he is creating this never even threatens to happen. His depiction of the sordid elements of Brandon's life is regularly graphic, but never pornographic. A great deal of the sexual activity McQueen shows us is devoid of sexiness, instead manifesting a combination of Brandon's hedonism, dependency and self-loathing. The only time the director allows sex on screen to titillate is during Brandon's seduction of co-worker Marianne (Nicole Beharie), directly reflecting the character's desire to begin a genuine romantic relationship. Without a doubt, McQueen's command over his film is absolute and expert at every moment.
Carey Mulligan, supporting Fassbender as Brandon's capricious sister Sissy, is also deserving high praise. Her chemistry with Fassbender is electric, bringing a volatile and deep relationship to the screen with the two sharing both tender moments and some of the most uneasily tense scenes in the entire film. Her haunting yet beautiful take on a well-known film theme is also guaranteed to stay with you just as long as some of Shame's most hard-hitting sexual images.
Shame is a modern masterpiece: a piece of art where everything is perfectly crafted and exudes excellence. Steve McQueen is a director of substantial talent who will undoubtedly prove to be a name in cinema worth watching very closely in the years to come. But it is the awe-inspiring performance from Michael Fassbender that will imprint itself upon your mind long after the film's conclusion, and rightfully so. It's the most brilliant performance I've seen yet from one of the finest acting talents of the 21st Century. Shame is regularly not an easy watch, but it's a film that without question deserves to be seen.