Brandon lives in NYC and has a super power: his gaze. Without seeming to do anything but focus his attention, his unwavering gaze, on a pretty young woman on the subway train, he can charge her erotically, to the point where her arousal turns into shame, and a chase, a predator and object of desire.
We see him, intercut with the subway as it all starts, getting out of bed and walking through his stark, stylish NYC apartment after having had sex, his shoulder's broad, penis flopping, long shot where we can see his bare feet to patterning hairline, shadowy figure emphasizing the feral. Sex is, after all, what we have in common with the beasts. Brandon the beast, as are all the other bodies he couples with, seen in beautiful silhouettes and appreciation for human form, in extended take foreplay-to-coitis, in fast-cut electroshock reaction to tortured moments of real human feeling.
Brandon is, as they're treating the movie in PR, a sex addict, and while the movie takes that seriously as a heart attack, this is no after school special. In fact, the question of whether Brandon has learned anything is open to the last frame, and I think it's meant for us to go deep in ourselves, what we believe is possible about our own capability to break out of those mechanisms we use to block feeling because, as the movie makes clear in both elliptical and visceral ways, feeling so often is about pain.
So this (incredibly well built and well-hung) sex addict (in a successful job) in Sexhattan is seducing or buying or onlining it every free moment, even in the stall at work. He seems to assume he's covering his tracks well enough, or maybe not being seen unless he so wills it, but when his sister, Sissy, comes to town, everything starts falling apart, and Brandon's addiction is exposed at work and to her.
McQueen's eye is brilliant, with surfaces reminiscent of Michael Mann's great L.A. version in Heat, but much more in mastershots, often one long Steadicam or static take with actors improvising dialogue, or sex, almost like a cinematic play, unfolding unbroken, in real time before us.
There's man times when it's reminiscent of Antonioni, where the architecture of the modern city traps the characters in defined spaces, or dwarfs them, trapped and alienated, from their own souls. There's a bravura tracking shot, something like ten blocks of jogging at night in the city, ending up at 32rd & Madison Square Garden and a broken sign that shows the lengths our addict is going to escape his shame. But as we all know, New York City is at all times the city of where fornication never sleeps.
James Badge Dale is very different than he's been in that I've seen before, playing Brandon's married hound dog boss, Nicole Beharie makes a huge impression as an office fling, as does Lucy Walters on the subway in a what's essentially a silent film performance. All the actors seem completely natural to the world, noir, distanced, darkly glamorous, almost sci-fi noir. And, yes, they're great to look at.
Fassbender carries every scene, so completely committed to every revealing inch of the role, running a slow burn gamut that leads him all the way down to hell. Several times in the movie he hangs his head (in shame, of course) so low that, shot from behind, he appears to be the headless man. Man lowered below the beast, because he knows of his sin.
But it's Carrie Mulligan who breaks out completely in this. As Sissy, the ne'er-do-well sister just looking for love and shelter but getting ditched and burned at every turn, nowhere in sight is that prim core that's even in her character in Drive, let alone An Education. She there's naked, flawed, the most human thing in the movie. She sings an almost unbearably slowed down version of "New York, New York," revealing a hell of a voice and holding an infinite close-up, her eyes breaking our hearts, and her brother's.
What is it they share? What has caused him to run away from even her, and her to run to everyone? It's only obliquely referenced, just enough of a hint, but you can use your imagination. There's an element of horror Shame, that thing that at times makes it closer to Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom than Last Tango in Paris, that the past hints at and the present dreads.
Because Shame equals loneliness, and loneliness is it's own shame. A cycle of love and pain. Shame, as my mother liked to say, one of the great twin gifts that a parent gives a child.
The other being guilt.