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Originally published Thursday, December 8, 2011 at 3:01 PM

Movie review

'Shame': Anatomy of a twisted sibling bond

A review of the chilly but engrossing sex tragedy "Shame," starring Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan.

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 3 stars

'Shame,' with Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale, Nicole Beharie. Directed by Steve McQueen, from a screenplay by McQueen and Abi Morgan. 99 minutes. Rated NC-17 for some explicit sexual content. Pacific Place.

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A man, precisely dressed in shades of gray and blue that mirror the colorless, chilly quiet of his presence, gazes at a stranger: a pretty woman on a Manhattan subway. Though his face barely moves, it's clear what he's thinking; she sees him and becomes, in spite of herself, intrigued. They carry on a sort-of conversation, without words; it's a brief encounter, yet a drama all by itself.

This is an early scene in Steve McQueen's drama of sex addiction, "Shame," and it's electric — nothing happens, and yet a great deal happens. Throughout the film, Michael Fassbender's performance as that man on the subway, whose name is Brandon, is a master class in subtlety: This character, quietly immersing himself in online porn and casual sex, is a lost soul. Something terrible once happened to him and his troubled sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan), who soon turns up at his apartment for an uninvited stay, but we're never told exactly what. The two cling to each other as if drowning, but inadvertently pulling themselves deeper into the water. "We're not bad people," says Sissy. "We're just from a bad place."

Both are, frequently, physically naked (the movie's rated NC-17, and Fassbender's piercing eyes are far from the only body part with which we become familiar); only she is emotionally bare. Sissy, a singer, performs an excruciatingly slow version of "New York, New York" at a nightclub as if it's a cry for help. Mulligan, filling every pause between the words, shows us that Sissy needs to sing because otherwise she might cry; she's an open wound seeking a bandage — and not finding it with her brother. Brandon holds himself still, sometimes barely seeming to breathe, unable to connect with anyone who cares about him. "I don't see the point of relationships," he tells a colleague (Nicole Beharie) on an awkward date. Meanwhile, he and Sissy haunt and taunt each other, in a thoroughly messed-up sibling bond unlike any you've seen on screen.

Directed by British filmmaker McQueen, whose previous film was the acclaimed "Hunger" (also starring Fassbender), "Shame" is an odd mixture: two marvelous actors in a film that seems to back away from them just a bit. It's frustrating that we never find out their shared history, that even the title is ambiguous (does Brandon feel shame? We don't see it, exactly), that the film presents such a uniformly gray depiction of life — and that the lead performances are just a little better than the movie they're in.

Ultimately "Shame" emerges as a sex tragedy, and a story without an end; it stays with you, like the film's frequent cold rain, hard to watch and harder to forget.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

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