His obsessions aren't limited to other flesh-and-blood people. Brandon's magazine cache puts the back of any dirty Yonge Street used bookshop to shame. His work computer is so filthy it has to be removed from his office for a thorough scrubbing, and his laptop is infected with obscenity to the point that he discards it wholesale in a fit of guilty anxiety.
A visit from his unruly sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) does nothing but exacerbate his issues for the audience's benefit. She causes legitimate frustration when she readily sleeps with Brandon's lascivious boss (James Badge Dale). Further, as she foists herself upon him as a roommate - and uncannily as a temptress - we watch his sex obsession reveal its roots in a deeper intimacy problem.
The disturbing and palpable sexual tension between the siblings makes for some of the film's richest and most memorable points, captured only through the filmmaker’s use of subtext. We're left to wonder: is Brandon afraid of what he is capable of in the presence of his libidinous sister, or of what the two have done in the past?
We don't know whether to be thankful or disappointed that the pair never act on these urges. While such a plot point would make the film considerably more difficult to watch, it might inject a source of action into an otherwise static story.
Shame is (naturally) the real focus here, and perhaps the paralysis that often comes as a result is what writer-director Steve McQueen (no relation) wishes to highlight: Brandon is shamed into stagnancy and silence. Despite inspired performances by Fassbender and the other lead actors, the protagonist’s struggle was a struggle to watch, barely keeping my attention.
McQueen attempted to let the bare facts of the film's premise provide all of the impact. He underestimated how easy it is for most men to relate to Brandon's issues, and how apparent the link between sex dependency and a fear of intimacy is to the average person.
Though he succeeded in making (almost) all of the sex in the film thoroughly unsexy, his visuals walk a fine line between beauty and languidness. Though I hesitate to say it in the context of a renowned British artist such as McQueen for fear of appearing obtuse, a whiff of pretension lingers in the style, and especially with regard to the conspicuous and frequent nudity.
It remains an intriguing watch about the nature of addiction and what lies beneath its surface. However, the fact that a Turner prizewinner such as McQueen was unable to produce a more compelling narrative is simply a shame.