With the advent of the second decade of the twenty-first century, it feels as though films have become more comfortable with a nihilistic approach to portraying humanity. In Steve McQueen's (not to be confused with the hero of so bad it's good 1970s cinema) sophomore film, Shame, Brandon (Michael Fassbender) shows us a world of sexual debauchery that we've only dreamed of--or at least never talked about with anyone else.
Opening on an overhead shot of Brandon as he stares at the ceiling in his bed, we are immediately familiarized with the emptiness of his life. After about a minute of this, the title of the film, succinct and ominous, appears onscreen. From this point onward, a series of shots in which Brandon parades around his apartment nude (Fassbender has no problem with full-frontal, let me tell you. As well he shouldn't.) after having sex with a random girl--in most cases, a prostitute--dominates the initialization of the first act. Throughout each of these shots, he plays a different voicemail from a girl we later learn is his sister. His aversion to establishing any form of communication with her is instantly evident as he would rather interact with his online mistress or concentrate on some form of penetration than deal with familial matters.
With no response to confirm or deny whether she can come and stay with him, Sissy infiltrates his apartment and his life like the force of nature that she forthwith (that's right, I said forthwith) comes across as. The nature of their relationship is easily classified as ambiguous, often veering much too closely to potentially incestuous--and there's really no evidence to tell us that they didn't fuck one or more times in the past. Considering the no holds barred sexual lifestyle of Brandon and a disturbing message from Sissy on Brandon's cell phone in which she states, "We're not bad people, we just come from a bad place," incest doesn't seem like the worst thing that could happen to either of them.
The possessiveness and jealousy Brandon feels for his sister becomes more palpable when she brings Brandon's sleazy boss, David (James Badge Dale), back to the apartment. The only activity that can distract Brandon from his pain, both with regard to his life and the presence of his sister, is sex. It is his drug of choice, the notion he contemplates most in life. But conventional ideas of intercourse bore him. In fact, he can't even get it up for someone he's been on an actual date with/shared any sort of cerebral exchange. Brandon is much more partial to the "stranger on a train" concept. Though it's difficult to think there's anything sexy about people who ride the subway when you've actually lived in New York.
The woman who Brandon lusts after in this particular scene is pivotal to the film's conclusion, an open-ended denouement that leads us to believe no one ever fundamentally changes his behavior. Especially when the behavior in question is his only solace from the heartache of living.