Review: ‘Shame’ Is Unsexy, Scary and Wholly Worthy

Michael Fassbender in "Shame."

If you’re still in doubt about whether or not sex addiction is real, see “Shame.” There are few things as depressing as watching a man defile a series of prostitutes while his suicidal sister sobs into his answering machine.

This is “Shame’s” chief accomplishment: Showing that an addiction to sex can be as damaging as abusing alcohol, drugs, or anything else. Michael Fassbender (“Inglorious Basterds,” “X-Men: First Class”) plays Brandon, a 30-something New Yorker who denies family, friends, work, and sexual orientation to, as director Steve McQueen put it after a Wednesday screening of “Shame,” “get his fix.”

Fassbender is brilliant. His portrayal of a man obsessed is scary and scintillating. If people as soulless as Fassbender’s Brandon exist, you don’t want to know them.

Carrie Mulligan plays Brandon’s feckless sister turned unwanted roommate, Sissy. Their relationship is as disturbing as Brandon’s addiction. Brandon walks in on her stark naked in the shower; she catches him masturbating. As his hunger for sex grows, so does his ill-will to his squatting sibling, and they erupt into rows that are heartbreakingly bitter.

Mulligan’s nude scene will be talked about. What’s far more notable is her ability to dissolve into Sissy’s desperate little world, and to command a scene and a song, albeit a tad too long one, when Sissy performs a blues rendition of “New York, New York.”

Fassbender and Mulligan make “Shame” terrifying in the best of ways. It’s sometimes unclear if he’s going to slit a throat or drop his pants; if she’s going to jump off a subway platform or jump into bed with her brother.

There’s a lot that’s difficult to watch. Pornographic acts, quiet rage, abuse of all kinds. But “Shame” tells a story worth seeing.

“People don’t want to talk about sex, especially sex addiction,” McQueen said. “It’s like people were with HIV in the early ’80s. There’s a stigma. For me, it’s like someone saying the world is flat when it is round.”

“Shame” opens in limited release today. Rated NC-17.