Kevin Jones’s review published on Letterboxd:
A haunting, horrifying, and harrowing portrayal of self-hatred, Shame is a dreadfully melancholy and truly abrasive look at the spiral one can go through when suffering. With an incredible lead performance from Michael Fassbender anchoring Steve McQueen's exploration of sex addiction, self loathing, and depression, Shame is a film unlike many others. It takes real courage to explore sex addiction in a meaningful way, as many write it off as something that is impossible to be addicted to and, as such, not a real addiction. Instead, sex addicts are cast aside as dirty perverts who are the shame of society. As Brandon Sullivan (Fassbender) shows, however, he does not enjoy sex. It is a need. It provides a momentary high and then he comes crashing back down to earth into a rapidly spiraling out of control mire of self hatred.
From the very beginning of the film, McQueen adorns his film with shades of blue and gray. Melancholy and depressing colors, Brandon wears a gray jacket with a blue scarf daily. The scenes behind him at home, work, and on the subway, are covered with grays and blues. This colorization truly sets the scene for the film, which is incredibly depressing and a dark look at depression as a whole, both through Brandon and his sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan). In many ways, Sissy is just like Brandon. When he finds her unexpectedly in his apartment, she is in the shower and has no problems with Brandon seeing her naked. The two of them are incredibly open with one another to the point that she has sex in Brandon's bed with him in the other room and makes out with a guy in a cab right next to Brandon. The two know the other is a sexual being, but they have a similarity: they use sex to disguise the pain. Sissy is suicidal with numerous scars on her arms and flirts with jumping in front of a pain. Brandon himself sort of just mopes around the film, rejecting human companionship of any kind in favor of short lasting jolts of sexual energy with random people. For Brandon, he is straight, but will pay for sex, pick up women, watch porn, read porn, or accept sex from men. Anything to get his fix fits the bill and it is how he covers up the pain. Sissy, in the short time we see her, seemingly does the same thing with references to past lovers and an obsession with her current lover. Thus, she is far less fleeting and more concerned with finding long-term connections with somebody who can mend her broken pieces. Unfortunately, she cannot find this person, as she is unable to fix herself first.
In its exhaustive sex scenes, Shame may turn off more than a few viewers. However, if you watch the film and go with it, it becomes clear that this is not an erotic film. The sex scenes are depressive. They are cathartic for Brandon as he gets his fix, but it continues to fuel his spiral of self loathing. It is clear he is disgusted with himself. He feels intense shame to the point that he throws out of all his porn magazines, computer, and anything else that is of a sexual nature. He tries to move on and become normal. He goes on a date with a woman from work and tries to be nice without taking her home on the first date. However, once he has sex with her, it does not do it for him. He must get his fix, so he calls up a random girl and has sex with her instead. He follows up it with a threesome towards the end of the film and a random encounter with a guy. Though he does these things, it is not voluntary. Brandon is addicted to sex, yes, but he keeps indulging in this addiction because he cannot stand himself. Looking in the mirror is a tiring task and, when he does, he does not like what he sees. Undeniably, Brandon is suicidal and suffering from intense depression. Sex does not even make him happy, he merely goes through the motions because it has become the norm. Actually meaningful sex is a foreign concept to him and one that is no longer able to perform. Cheap throwaway sex with random women is the only thing that keeps him going. Unfortunately, it only feeds his self-hatred as he becomes even more depressed that he is so alone. His addiction leaves him unable to find a companion for longer than four months or, as is often the case, a single night. It is this spiral that makes the film only slightly one about sex addiction. Rather, it is a film about how people cope. For Brandon, it is via sex (which is certainly addicted to) and it is the only way he can make himself feel. For Sissy, it is through cutting herself and throwing herself into relationships.
A tragic and often hard to watch film, Shame shines a lot on the depravity one can do to themselves when they do not love themselves. Brandon Sullivan is one of the most depressed characters in a film in recent years and Fassbender truly brings him to life in a shockingly brilliant performance. Alongside him, Carey Mulligan breathes life into Sissy, who is equally as depressive as her brother. Together, they make one somber and melancholy duo. Rated NC-17 upon its release in the United States, this is unfortunately an oversight. Not titillating and erotic in the least, Shame is instead a dark, melancholy, and blue film that covered in gray clouds. Its sex scenes are not meant to arouse, but rather to shock and sadden the viewer by seeing what Brandon does in order to try and feel connected to himself and as a result of his self-loathing. For this, Shame is a brilliant work.