'Shame' review (****): Brilliant, graphic drama represents much more than just Magneto naked

**** (out of four)

Obviously the sex-addiction drama “Shame” has been rated NC-17 because of its nudity (something everyone experiences every day) and sex (something many people wish they experienced every day). Much has been written about the pro-violence, anti-sex rating system’s foolishness, so we’ll leave that alone. What deserves more conversation is star Michael Fassbender (Rochester in "Jane Eyre," Magneto in "X-Men: First Class"), who’s fantastic in everything; in the riveting "Shame," he delivers the year’s best male performance.

Brandon (Fassbender) spends most days in emotionless pursuit of sexual pleasure. A man of few words, Brandon's looks and charisma provide all the ammunition he requires, though a spectacular, single-take scene of a date with a co-worker reflects both Brandon’s inner tumult and his discomfort with intimacy. The guy may have an easy time picking up women, but connecting with them is another story.

Brandon has a void, and his constant attempt to fill it--driven by an uncontrollable, knee-jerk reaction in his mind, not his pants--renders him disengaged and unsatisfied.

Director/co-writer Steve McQueen ("Hunger") does not attribute Brandon’s behavior to anything specific in his past, and the movie's better for it. (How often does real-life addiction come with an easy explanation?) Exploring the dangerous spiral of an addiction some don't believe is a true addiction, the filmmaker seems especially interested in the deceptive power of a shared glance--when so much can be shared between two people who actually know nothing about where the other comes from.

In "Shame," life becomes reduced to ineffective language and highly representative actions. Seduction becomes both an art and a battle depending on who’s doing the seducing, and who’s being seduced. Brandon can have sex against a hotel window for the world to see, and if no one sees any money exchanged, it just looks like a woman and a man, not a hooker and a john.

When Brandon’s sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan, perfect) turns up in his place, asking to stay for a while, he accidentally barges in on her in the shower, thinking she is an intruder. She doesn’t cover up as quickly as most women would when their brother saw them in the shower. Later, Brandon feels no shame when expressing his anger toward Sissy, climbing on her when he’s wearing only a towel that’s not really doing its job. Perhaps this demonstrates something about their shared, scarring history. Or maybe McQueen, telling a story about casual, numb consumption of pleasure and people with space to fill, is just focused on siblings who can’t give each other what they need, profoundly aware of how naked we often are.

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mpais@tribune.com. @mattpais