Early on in Shame, the bracing and uncompromising new film from British auteur Steve McQueen, Carey Mulligan's troubled character Sissy sings the world's slowest rendition of Frank Sinatra's "New York, New York." She's impeccably dressed, singing as part of a gig at the exclusive Boom Boom Room high above the flashy Meatpacking District in Manhattan, and her older brother Brandon (Michael Fassbender) has come to see her perform for the first time in what seems to be a long while. She's a beautiful woman perched at the top of the greatest city in the world, and yet by the end of her dirge-like performance of the iconic song, it's clear she's miserable, completely annihilated by the ambition that Sinatra's song so ebulliently describes.
Sissy's brother Brandon is actually the central figure of Shame, a successful and handsome finance guy who's also devastated by his sex addiction, but her song, its contrast of glitter and destruction, defines Shame and its somber themes. Both Mulligan and Fassbender are stripped naked, literally, by the film, which depicts the two siblings as refugees from a vaguely defined but destructive childhood, still too beholden to their own demons and addictions to actually rely on each other. Brandon lives in a posh but sterile Chelsea apartment alone, able to feed his sex addiction constantly and without interruption, whether hiring prostitutes, masturbating at his kitchen table or in the shower, or simply isolating himself from co-workers and anyone who might become a friend. When Sissy shows up as an uninvited houseguest, she interrupts Brandon's carefully maintained loneliness.
A more traditional addiction drama would allow Sissy to help Brandon toward recovery, or at least have him reconsider his lifestyle in the presence of the one woman in his life he doesn't automatically want to sleep with. But though McQueen treads close to some elements of melodrama, particularly in the third act, Shame is a movie about people wallowing in their dysfunction, and we're left to wallow with them. Watching Brandon attempt a real date with a pretty coworker (Nicole Beharie), seeing him squirm through a lovely dinner, we root for him to pull this one off as a real relationship even when he knows perfectly well he can't. And when Brandon and Sissy have a charged conversation, sitting a little too closely to one another and never quite talking about their real feelings, we feel their tension sharply even without knowing the full details of their shared history.
Shot almost entirely in new buildings, filled with sleek glass and steel and straight lines, Shame manages to create a new cinematic Manhattan by making it both modern and decayed, exposing all this heralded as crass and soulless. It cuts right to the core of New York City idealism, something that Fassbender and McQueen and Mulligan inevitably experienced as foreigners, and show how someone like Brandon can use a city so busy and polished to disappear entirely. Playing Brandon's blankness and careful control as well as his moments of total breakdown, Fassbender gives a fearless and flawless performance, commanding every frame of the film with an anguish that masks itself as modern-day success. Mulligan is his equal but in a smaller role, and by necessity plays off him; Sissy is brash and confrontational where Brandon is reserved and avoidant, and the two put together establish one of the most confounding but instantly compelling familial relationships you'll see onscreen.
Lacking the real-world resonance of McQueen's previous film Hunger, Shame is something more of an experiment, and though it's hard not to identify at least somewhat with Brandon, it's also hard to find a specific takeaway or even emotional response from the film. But even when Shame is inscrutable or deliberately provocative, denying key back story or indulging in a lot of full-frontal nudity, it is moving in a way that's difficult to define. With rigorous direction, deeply committed performance and an unflinching willingness to expose raw nerves, Shame is an arty experiment that cuts deep.