Inverting the privation of his striking debut, Hunger, Steve McQueen's second feature is about an appetite indulged rather than suppressed. Michael Fassbender, whose stock has risen dramatically since playing an emaciated hunger striker for McQueen, here takes on a cocksure Manhattan executive whose serial sport-fucking quickly reveals itself as an insatiable compulsion. As Fassbender carries on with casual pickups, prostitutes and online pros, the movie itself risks falling prey to the monotony of addiction.
Notwithstanding Sean Bobbitt's cinematography, which aligns Fassbender's impressive physique with the city's glistening glass and steel, the encounters grow repetitive and numbing; if the object is to make beautiful people having sex boring, it works. Fassbender's rhythm is upset when his younger sister (Carey Mulligan) turns up in his apartment, desperate for both financial and moral support. She's ostensibly an aspiring singer, although her maudlin rendition of "New York, New York" — presented in an unbroken close-up like some dramatic coup — is amateurish and on-the-nose. As in Hunger, McQueen has a weakness for pushing his points too hard, until they detach from the narrative and become freestanding works of their own. An extended brother-sister tête-à-tête illuminated only by a flat-screen TV playing public-domain cartoons feels more like it belongs in the Whitney Biennial than the middle of a film.
Late in Shame, McQueen and co-writer Abi Morgan tilt the story on its side, revealing Fassbender's addiction as a mere symptom of a deeper rot, one that, for once, McQueen merely implies rather than pounding into the ground. McQueen has a keen eye and great taste in actors, but he tends to underline his ideas rather than developing them. There's brilliance in Shame, but it's dulled by repetition.