There's a scene right near the beginning of Steve McQueen's brilliant "Shame" where the film's protagonist is in a subway car opposite a pretty redheaded lass in a short skirt. He leers at her with the cool appraisal of a jungle predator. She shifts, blushes, and steals glances back at him, looking as flustered and aroused as he seems impassive. It's a scene of almost unbearable sexual tension, and McQueen masterfully lets it go on and on.
"Shame" made waves earlier this year for getting slapped with an NC-17 rating. The rating supposedly spells box office death, but this movie, which is rightfully getting Oscar buzz, might put that long-held assumption to the test. Sure, there is plenty of skin in "Shame" -- it is a movie about a sex addict, after all. Yet McQueen manages to create scenes of a different sort of nakedness -- emotional, spiritual -- that are beautiful, unnerving, and hypnotic. McQueen was a gallery artist before stepping behind the camera, and it shows. Every shot in the movie has a beauty that recalls a painting more than a movie still.
The aforementioned protagonist, Brandon (played with heroic bravery by Michael Fassbender), is a corporate drone living in a sterile apartment who has constructed a life largely removed from the messiness of human interaction, save regular visits from call girls and the odd anonymous hookup.
Then his screwed-up sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) barges into his life. Sissy is as needy as Brandon is emotionally withdrawn; they are perfectly wrong for each other. In a show-stopping scene, Sissy sings a fragile, breathy rendition of "New York, New York" that leaves Brandon in tears. It's the only moment in the film that they completely connect; the rest of the movie, their respective issues start to drive the other person literally crazy.
The emotional demands of Sissy plus a failed attempt at a normal adult relationship with his co-worker, Marianne (a luminous Nicole Beharie), drive Brandon into a series of increasingly humiliating sexual encounters. The spiral ends with a three-way with a couple of low-rent hookers. He catches sight of himself in the mirror and an expression of pleasure quickly dissolves a look of deep existential pain. It's the sort of look that might haunt you for days after seeing the movie. "Shame" can be hard going, but, man, does it pack a punch.
See a clip from 'Shame':