All humans have habits, some of them bad. Brandon Sullivan's (Michael Fassbender) bad habits have curdled into full-bore addiction. The escorts with whom he politely negotiates terms, the workaday masturbation breaks, the Internet porn he watches to accompany a dinner of leftover takeout: This is Brandon's everyday landscape, as commonplace to him as another's crossword puzzle or nail-clipping.
Of course, there's nothing commonplace about the ability to bring a fellow subway commuter to near-climax with a well-placed gaze - and if that sounds implausible, perhaps you've not laid eyes on Michael Fassbender. A German/Irish actor, he comes packaged with a ramrod Teutonic posture and a Gaelic rogue's easy smile, and he bares all - yes, all - in a performance of anguish and exquisite control.
Early on, Brandon's sustaining sense of routine is upended by the arrival of Sissy. Played by Carey Mulligan with a previously unseen bravura, Sissy is Brandon's needy, chancy younger sister, a cabaret chanteuse who slow-moans Kander and Ebb's "New York, New York" like it's a funeral dirge. Where Brandon is ordered and emotionally closed off, Sissy is erratic, fairly lunging at any warm body that might warm her back.
An indeterminate damage has been done to them both - the nearest we get to an explanation is Sissy's assessment that "we're not bad people, we just come from a bad place." Whatever that long-ago damage was, it has steered the course of all future emotional and physical entanglements, including the siblings' own provocative push-pull.
Steve McQueen, the British video-installation artist who previously collaborated with Fassbender on 2008's Hunger, has stripped all fat from this obsessively stylized follow-up. From the unadorned score by Harry Escott to cinematographer Sean Bobbitt's isolating framing, this is a film with a single-minded, supremely uneasy focus.
Some critics have complained that McQueen and co-writer Abi Morgan have produced an incomplete-feeling portrait of Brandon - his job is a mystery, his backstory a murk - but isn't that rather the point? Brandon's addiction has become so all-consuming as to become the defining fact of his life. Who gives a toss what his business card reads?
The narrative elaboration that does exist - a predilection for Glenn Gould recordings of The Goldberg Variations; long runs through New York City - further informs Brandon's relationship to his disease. These elements reveal, say, a sympathetic kinship to another disordered mind and a runner's discipline as antidote to his sexual self-abandonment.
Equally harrowing and heartrending, Shame is a film that feels akin to going into battle. I for one didn't emerge unscathed.