Steve McQueen has now moved into the rarefied realm of master craftsman with this magnificent portrait of a sex addict. As good as he and his star Michael Fassbender were in Hunger (cross-reference below), that gritty film can now be seen as a full dress rehearsal to the main event.
Living alone in an apartment with view, successfully holding down a well-paying job (and artfully avoiding an office porn scandal when a virus search turns up hundreds of steamy, wet downloads—conveniently blamed on a long-gone subaltern), Brandon Sullivan (Fassbender) brings home successful trolling babes or by-the-hour whores to pleasure his unrepentant member between bathroom (home and office) jerk-off sessions that only fuel his insatiable appetite for more.
He’s long since decided that committed relationships are not his thing (“Why get married?”), having only gone the distance for four months at best. His salacious world is in for a major challenge when his sibling, songbird Cissy (Carey Mulligan gives a tantalizingly sultry rendition of “New York, New York” in an upscale club with her brother and his lecherous boss, James Badge Dale, in attendance—the pianist’s contributions are delectable), comes to crash, having “no other place left to go.”
In that same cocktail lounge scene, McQueen succinctly demonstrates his superb understanding of music, character and image. Rendering Sinatra’s hit in a decidedly slow-moving ballad sets the mood. Letting the whole song be sung is a rare treat. Naturally, the early focus—in extreme close-up—is rightly on the chanteuse but at the end of the lyric “up to you” Sean Bobbitt’s camera (deftly assisted by editor Joe Walker) captures Brandon in a silent moment of tender reflection that marvellously sets the stage for the desperate familial drama to come.
Employing Glen Gould’s fabled Bach recordings provides a thoughtful backdrop to Brandon’s early development: an early-hour jog through the city to avoid unwanted (astonishing as that may seem) copulation under his own roof and a gruesome discovery in the bathroom after a night on the town that produced vagina-scented fingers, facial bruises, a queer blow job—addiction taking the lead over sexual preference—and a paid-for threesome. It’s hard not to imagine Fassbender taking home an Oscar for this incredible performance: his brilliantly nuanced visage filling the screen with the intimate details of agony, ecstasy but ultimately shallow release—like his frequent, unabashed nudity—sends the performance over the top even as his personal world descends into breakdown most severe. Sadly, many of those who vote will shy away from the overabundance of pathetic truth. But, if golfers could vote ….
For everyone else, it’s a difficult film told with unreserved courage, attention to detail (this column’s headline slips quietly into frame on the subway pickup sequence) filled with many lessons for our time as—it seems daily—we learn of other travesties arising from sexual addiction of the rich and famous. McQueen reminds us that for every headline shocker, there must be thousands of “no names” slithering down the same slippery slope of shame. JWR