Steve McQueen's first two films both star Michael Fassbender, feature virtually interchangeable titles, and are nearly as grueling to watch as they must have been to make. But where Shame might be nearly as excruciating as 2008's Hunger, it's a lot less exalted. In Hunger, Fassbender's imprisoned Irish revolutionary Bobby Sands starved himself to death; in Shame, Fassbender's thirtysomething Manhattan office drone mortifies his flesh in another fashion. Captive to an insatiable appetite for porn, whores, and quick hookups, both cyber and actual, he's a sex addict. Fassbender gives McQueen another extraordinarily physical performance, but, while often unclothed, he's less revealing (or at least more withholding). Crucifixion imagery abounds: Fassbender's Brandon is introduced sprawled out in bed, naked save for a blue loincloth of tousled sheets. His monastic high-rise apartment is barely distinguishable from the Standard hotel room where he nails high-class hookers against the giant windows. Is this God's city or Satan's? As opposed to Hunger, Shame is a film where compulsion trumps conviction. The tone is impressionistic, cool, and programmatically anti-erotic as Brandon embarks on a manic journey to the end of the night, torturing himself with daredevil barroom pickups, hooker orgies, and a side trip to some homo hell of iniquity. Increasingly awful, his passion leaves us less gasping in physical horror than grasping at metaphysical straws. Does the Lord really live in this cold, ethereal New York City? And is anyone even interested?
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