Sullivan is self-destructive and lost, wallowing in shame and remorse for his selfish actions and then attempting to outrun them, without succeeding.
What makes the film so unsettling is how completely Sullivan allows himself to be consumed by his own sexual gratification. Satisfying his lust has become the preeminent impulse in his life, but he has managed to keep this fact hidden from most of those around him.
What he says is one thing, but what he does is something else. It’s that age-old Jekyll and Hyde contradiction between his private and the public faces, but most of the time Sullivan doesn’t even seem to be aware of or concerned by where his appetites are leading him. The audience knows that only disaster awaits him, though.
Men seeking out sex as a way to cope with their own unruly feelings or anxieties is nothing new, but few films ever dare to address the compulsions that drive them with the maturity that Shame does.
Interestingly, the film doesn’t suggest that lust is always a deceitful and dangerous force in people’s lives. Instead, it’s Sullivan’s refusal to ever allow himself to connect to the people he’s having sex with that makes him so damaged, the film says.
Much will probably be made about all the nudity and the multiple partners, but honestly, Shame is not in the least bit racy or pornographic. At all times Fassbender’s performance and lighthouse intelligence remind you of what the film is exploring and what it will personally cost his character.
Critics have compared Fassbender to the young Daniel Day Lewis, as an actor of the first rate. But really he’s actually closer to Marlon Brando, a once in a generation male lead who has looks, sensitivity, skill and the ability to convey a great deal with a simple gesture.
The French call an orgasm “le petit mort,” meaning the little death (that laughs in the face of the big one, presumably). Rarely has a film dared to suggest this nakedly that pursuing one can lead to a different kind of death -- that of your own spirit and heart.
Sullivan’s addiction and drug of choice is sex, but it could just as easily be drugs or alcohol. The audience realizes he’s seeking oblivion, not answers.
In his portrait of a man who keeps missing the crucial moments in his own life that contain the grace to save him, Fassbender stars in the film of the year.
Below, watch the trailer for 'Shame':