Brandon, a New York City executive and long-term bachelor, frequently has sex with prostitutes and masturbates several times daily, sometimes viewing pornography on his work computers. One day Brandon makes eye contact with a woman wearing an engagement ring on the subway during his morning commute. She initially reciprocates, but becomes uncomfortable. When they exit, she disappears into the crowd. He masturbates in the bathroom afterwards at work. Brandon and his married boss, David, hit on women at a club; later, Brandon has sex on a quiet street with the woman David was pursuing.
Brandon has been ignoring calls from his sister, Sissy, a lounge singer. He arrives at his apartment to find her in his shower. Sissy has a few gigs in the city and asks to stay; he later hears her pleading with her lover on the telephone not to reject her. After Brandon's company computer system is infected with a virus, they find his hard drive was full of pornography. David assumes Brandon's intern is responsible.
Brandon rebukes Sissy for balancing precariously on the subway platform edge. Later, he and David watch her perform "New York, New York" in a bar, which makes Brandon emotional. David flirts with her and notices the scars of self-inflicted wounds on her arms. Sissy has sex with David in her brother's bedroom while Brandon, disgusted, goes running. Later that night, Sissy attempts to get in bed with Brandon; he orders her out of the room.
Brandon goes on a date with co-worker Marianne, who is recently separated and has a positive attitude toward commitment, while Brandon dislikes the idea of marriage and admits that his relationships have never lasted longer than four months. They go home separately.
That night, Sissy discovers Brandon masturbating in his bathroom. He attacks her and accuses her of spying on him. She finds his laptop open on a pornographic webcam site. Brandon slams the laptop shut and a disturbed Sissy leaves. Brandon disposes of his pornography, sex toys, and laptop. At work, he kisses Marianne and the two get a hotel room, but Brandon cannot maintain an erection. Immediately after Marianne leaves, Brandon is seen having aggressive sex with a prostitute against the window of the same hotel room.
Brandon tells Sissy that David has a family, and insists that she leave. She says that, as family, they are supposed to help each other, but Brandon accuses her of being irresponsible and a burden. Brandon goes to a bar and comes on to a woman, describing in detail what he'd do to her sexually. She is close to succumbing when her boyfriend intercedes. Brandon laughs in his face and tells him what he was saying. After he leaves the club unsatisfied, the boyfriend follows him out and brutally beats Brandon. When he is physically barred from entering another club, he goes to a gay bar across the street and is fellated by a man. After leaving, he listens to a voicemail message from Sissy crying as she tells him they aren't bad people, but come from a bad place. Nearing the point of withdrawal, Brandon has three-way sex with two prostitutes.
While Brandon is riding the subway home, the passengers are asked to leave the train due to a police emergency. He frantically calls Sissy, but she does not answer. He runs home to find Sissy sitting on the bathroom floor covered in blood, having slashed both wrists. He attempts to stop the bleeding while calling on his cellphone for help. She survives and he comforts her in the hospital. After leaving, he walks until he collapses, sobbing in the rain.
Some time later, Brandon is riding the subway. While looking around, he notices the same woman from the beginning of the film, still wearing the engagement ring. This time, the woman initiates flirting, but Brandon is hesitant. She stands, ready to exit the train at an approaching station. As the train slows, Brandon does not take his eyes off the woman, but does not stand up either.Michael Fassbender as Brandon Sullivan
Carey Mulligan as Sissy Sullivan
James Badge Dale as David
Nicole Beharie as Marianne
Alex Manette as Steven
Lucy Walters as The Subway Lady
Elizabeth Masucci as Elizabeth
Amy Hargreaves as Hotel Lover
McQueen worked with producer Iain Canning on the 2008 film Hunger and they reunited to develop Shame with Canning and Emile Sherman's UK/Australia-based See-Saw Films. McQueen's lead actor in Hunger, Michael Fassbender, was the first and only choice to play the lead role in Shame. Actors Carey Mulligan and James Badge Dale joined the cast in December 2010 to play the younger sister and boss, respectively, of Fassbender's character. Screenwriter Abi Morgan was chosen to produce the script, making it one of two films she worked on with Film4 (the other being The Iron Lady).
Production was scheduled to begin on location in New York in January 2011, though Fassbender later commented in an interview that he just began shooting his scenes in early March. "I had so many passes I couldn't even tell you", said casting director Avy Kaufman, who faced precisely that challenge in casting the NC-17-rated film. Kaufman had a unique assignment from McQueen, who wanted top-quality actors even for tiny parts – like Brandon's fly-by-night sexual partners. "The idea was that those partners would propel the story forward with their silence, showing Brandon's state of mind, or even suggesting the history of their relationship with a look or a gesture. The actresses, of course, also had to meet certain physical requirements." A majority of the film was shot in and around Chelsea. The office scenes were filmed in the Citigroup Center and the hotel scenes and nightclub scene were shot at the Standard Hotel in the Meatpacking District. Filming ended late May for re-shoots, and post-production began.
A soundtrack was released via Sony Classical Records on 6 December 2011."New York, New York "Theme"" arrangement and production by Stephen Oremus and piano by Liz Caplan
David Butterworth – orchestration (1, 11, 15)
Rolf Wilson – leader (1, 11, 15)
Nick Wollage – engineering, recording, mixing (1, 11, 15)
Pete Hutchings – assistant engineering (1, 11, 15)
Manfred Melchior – mastering
Ian Wood – score editor (1, 11, 15)
Isobel Griffiths – orchestra contractor (1, 11, 15)
Lucy Whalley – assistant orchestra contractor (1, 11, 15)
White Label Productions – design
Steve McQueen – liner notes
Shame premiered at The 68th Venice Film Festival in the main competition. Fassbender won the Volpi Cup for Best Actor at the Venice Film Festival for his role in the film. It was also screened at The 36th Toronto International Film Festival, The 49th New York Film Festival, The 55th B.F.I. London Film Festival and The 34th Starz Denver Film Festival.
Shame was released in the UK on 13 January 2012, after the limited release screening in the US that commenced on 2 December 2011. Fox Searchlight Pictures paid around $400,000 to acquire the United States distribution rights of Shame.
The film was rated NC-17 (no one 17 years of age or under admitted) by the Motion Picture Association of America for some explicit sexual content. Fox Searchlight did not appeal the rating or make cuts for the less restrictive R rating. Searchlight president Steve Gilula said, "I think NC-17 is a badge of honor, not a scarlet letter. We believe it is time for the rating to become usable in a serious manner".
Shame received positive reviews and has a 79% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 199 reviews with an average rating of 7.4 out of 10. The consensus states "Boasting stellar performances by Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan, Shame is a powerful plunge into the mania of addiction affliction." The film also has a score of 72 out of 100 on Metacritic based on 41 reviews.
Roger Ebert of Chicago Sun-Times gave the film four out of four stars and described it as "a powerful film" and "courageous and truthful", commenting that "this is a great act of filmmaking and acting. I don't believe I would be able to see it twice." Ebert would later name it his second best film of 2011. Todd McCarthy of The Hollywood Reporter gave the film a positive review, stating, "Driven by a brilliant, ferocious performance by Michael Fassbender, Shame is a real walk on the wild side, a scorching look at a case of sexual addiction that's as all-encompassing as a craving for drugs."
Dan Bullock of The Hollywood News said, "Shame is captivating and intensely intimate. McQueen has followed Hunger with an unflinching and compelling film that explores the depths of addiction and the consequential destruction and demise of the mind and although it is sometimes difficult to watch, you won't be able to keep your eyes off it." Justin Chang of Variety gave the film a positive review, commenting, "A mesmerizing companion piece to his 2008 debut, Hunger, this more approachable but equally uncompromising drama likewise fixes its gaze on the uses and abuses of the human body, as Michael Fassbender again strips himself down, in every way an actor can, for McQueen's rigorous but humane interrogation."
Writing in The New York Times, A. O. Scott said, "McQueen wants to show how the intensity of Brandon's need shuts him off from real intimacy, but this seems to be a foregone conclusion, the result of an elegant experiment that was rigged from the start." Donald Clarke of The Irish Times called it "the most wholesome film made about unwholesomeness since The Exorcist" noting that "the underlying current of Puritanism is, however, more than a little oppressive".
Writing for MUBI, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky took issue with the film's deliberate vagueness & emptiness: “every scene [is] ladled with big dollops of cinema’s most respectable cop-out: ambiguity … Shame wears its emptiness like a badge of honor; McQueen is trying for banal blankness, and though he succeeds in that respect, you kind of wish that a filmmaker (and one with a background as an artist at that) would aspire to do more than just say nothing.”
In the blog for the British journal The Art of Psychiatry, psychiatrist Abby Seltzer praised Mulligan for her portrayal of an individual with borderline personality disorder. While she had initially approached the film warily because of reviews that focused on Brandon's sex addiction, she found it "a moving and accurate portrayal of psychopathology ... [that should be] compulsory viewing for all practising clinicians."
The film was released on Blu-ray and DVD in April 2012.