Magneto lets it all hang out. Michael Fassbender — the German-Irish Adonis of the art house, who also played the young Magneto in this summer’s X-Men: First Class — is on full-frontal display in the grinding sex drama Shame. Director Steve McQueen, the visual artist whose first feature, Hunger, starred Fassbender as IRA hunger-striker Bobby Sands, is just as remorseless in portraying the sex addiction of a Manhattan office worker. Shame is not pornographic, but this vividly clinical depiction of satyriasis is explicit enough to land the film an NC-17 rating, the American equivalent of the old, tawdry X. That makes Fassbender the ultimate X-Man.
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The 34-year-old actor, whose chiseled good looks suggest the young Christopher Plummer, made his first splash a decade ago in the HBO series Band of Brothers, and played the Spartan warrior Stelios in 300. But it was his punishing commitment to the Bobby Sands role that won him a slew of awards and the chance at a wide variety of projects, which he chose with a calculated daring. His range was evident in two movies at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, where he could be seen investing the same intensity in a standard-issue epic hero — the British officer who goes undercover in Nazi-occupied France in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds — as in playing a flawed fellow like the roguish Irishman attracted to a 15-year-old girl in Andrea Arnold’s low-budget Fish Tank.
This year Fassbender has been everywhere: the mordant Rochester in Jane Eyre and Carl Jung in A Dangerous Method as well as his roles in X-Men and Shame. This quartet of impressive performances led him to a second-place finish (behind Brad Pitt) in Tuesday’s New York Film Critics Circle vote for Best Actor. Next he’ll star with Gina Carano and an all-star cast in Steven Soderbergh’s action film Haywire, and with Charlize Theron and Noomi Rapace in Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s sort-of-prequel to Alien. Everybody wants him, and he seems focused enough to appear in three or four movies a year — an exciting prospect for his growing legion of admirers.
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Fassbender’s Brandon, in Shame, is a handsome guy with an inherent gift for appraising and seducing women. Brandon takes the briefest glance at a blonde at a bar, and, when she closes her eyes and asks what color they are, he automatically knows brown. Eye contact is Brandon’s overture to sex. In the subway on his way to work, he catches sight of a lovely young woman (Lucy Walters) sitting across from him. Flattered by his attention, she smiles back and crosses her legs to reveal some stockinged thigh. As her stop approaches, she stands up and grasps the pole in front of him to show that she’s wearing a wedding ring. That flash of forbidden fruit sends Brandon out of the train to pursue the woman. He’ll be late for work that day.
Courtship, though, is not crucial to Brandon’s sex life. He studies violent porn on his computers at home and — big mistake — at work; he masturbates in the shower and in the office men’s room; he enlists the services of call girls, pounding his manhood into them with expertise and, in the ferocity of his facial features, a hint of desperation. His boss, David (James Badge Dale), sometimes accompanies him on prowls. Not nearly the smooth dude Brandon is, David’s a little in awe of his co-worker, maybe in love with him.
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Brandon tries dating another office colleague, Marianne (Nicole Beharie), but that may be a bad idea, for he can achieve release only in furtive, anonymous sex. Any human relationship is an automatic detumescent. So he’s annoyed when his younger sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan), a singer with a history of suicide attempts, shows up to crash on his couch. The interest she shows in David will further complicate Brandon’s already full schedule.
Mulligan is another appealing comer: she received an Oscar nomination for her role as a precocious teen in An Education, and, like Fassbender, was a runner-up in this week’s New York Film Critics’ vote (for best supporting actress). The actress performs a gorgeous rendition of “New York, New York” as a plaintive ballad not of ambition but of longing, and like her co-star, she’s on full-frontal view here. But Sissy is only a distraction to her brother; her story abuts his but doesn’t alter its trajectory. Brandon is a soloist, not a team player.
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In a movie era remarkable for its reluctance to dramatize erotic intimacy, Shame merits praise for the dark energy of its sexual encounters. What’s really off-putting about Brandon’s trysts is their bleakness. They are arid, not juicy, and a challenge for even the most avid voyeur to get excited about. Filmed in elegant, unrelenting long takes with very few traditional reaction shots, Shame unspools like a documentary on the rutting of feral animals. In fact, it ought to be called Hunger — since shame suggests a feeling of ethical remorse, and Brandon doesn’t have ethics, only urges. We see him dwelling in a sybarite’s dream world of constant sex but, clearly, not having a great time. Beyond that, he’s a enigma.
Though set in today’s Manhattan, Shame pulses with the grimy vibe of New York City in the late ’70s and early ’80s: when the subways were scarred with graffiti, carpeted with old newspapers like a bird cage and packed with hapless homeless men; and when Chic’s “I Want Your Love” and Blondie’s “Rapture” (both on the movie’s soundtrack) were siren calls to promiscuity in discos and grimy gay bathhouses.
Shame shares a lot with another creepy fiction of the era, Bret Easton Ellis’ 1991 novel American Psycho, set in the go-go ’80s and portraying the moral emptiness of a Wall Street yuppie. Back then, the porn was on videocassettes, and Patrick Bateman, Ellis’ deranged protagonist, either killed and dismembered many of his sexual conquests or, nearly as bad, dreamed he did. But both men are ciphers. As Patrick said of himself, “I simply am not there.”
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McQueen doesn’t judge the character or probe beneath his hard surface, and though Fassbender exposes plenty of himself, he declines to open a window into whatever Brendan has in place of a soul. The director’s and actor’s point, boldly taken and bravely shown, may well be that for this nonstop cocksman there is no hope of change, no resolvable crisis, no there there.
So audiences will have to read their own moral qualms into Brandon. His fate may be perpetual imprisonment in his compulsions: at the end of the film he’s where he began. Again he sees the pretty woman on the subway, again she returns his smile. The predator is back on the chase, to search for a glimpse of Heaven in the circle of Hell he’s created for himself.