Written by: Steve McQueen, Abi Morgan
Directed by: Steve McQueen
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale, Nicole Beharie
Running Time: 1 hr 39 min
Theatrical Release Date: December 2, 2011 (limited)
DVD Release Date: April 17, 2012
Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Summary: The cold, industrial backdrop of New York City sets a fitting stage for the story of an emotionally void, thirty-something executive with a compulsive sex addiction. From his calm, focused demeanor to his meticulous personal style, Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender) appears to lead an extremely controlled existence. Beneath it all, however, his world spins in complete chaos, his every step dictated by his constant need to climax. His solitary, uncomplicated lifestyle allows Brandon the freedom to relentlessly and unapologetically follow his impulses—until his sister, Sissy (Carey Mulligan), shows up for an impromptu visit and turns his world upside down, forcing him to confront the destructive demons that have long dominated his life.
Performances: Fassbender’s gift of physicality is indisputable. The actor shows no awkwardness while engaged in scenes wrought with explicit nudity or sexual displays, but easily demonstrates the slightest humiliation when evidence about his private life is brought to light. More impressive is what Fassbender can do with a simple expression, the look in his eyes perfectly communicating Brandon’s longing for his next sexual release, but never falsely impressing upon audiences any notion of passion, (an aspect clearly absent from Brandon’s encounters).
Although Mullligan perfectly plays any role she takes on, her remarkable portrayal of Brandon’s muddled yet endearing sister was more than one could have expected from even such a well known talent. The actress easily conveys Sissy’s sexual confidence, while at the same time maintaining her emotional vulnerability. So totally encased in her performance was Mulligan that from her very first seconds on screen, the character became essentially unrecognizable as the actress who played her. Exceptional performances from such as gifted actress should be a given by now, yet Mulligan continues to surpass expectation.
Together, the actors constitute a mirror image of caustic sexual psychosis that is at once tragic and moving. In the quietly powerful lounge scene in which Sissy sings “New York, New York”, Mullligan projects an air of numb desperation that lies in stark contrast to the song’s hopeful lyrics. The crushing feelings of regret and defeat that Mulligan lends to this scene could only be improved upon by a performance of equal magnitude— that of Fassbender. His reaction not only conveys sympathy for his sister, but suggests a shared knowledge in her past sorrows. The strength of these performances transforms a long and potentially sterile scene into a deeply emotional success.
Other Considerations: The film’s style of cinematography and use of locations were just as important to its creation as its actors and storyline. The cool color palette echoes the insipid feeling of Brandon’s world, and the sparse, functional design of the apartment and city exteriors reflect the character’s mechanical approach to life and to sex. McQueen’s well-known use of the long take shows Brandon’s emotional trials in real time, allowing audiences the rare opportunity to share in the escalating intensity of a character’s emotions.
The isolated way in which Brandon lives enables him to continually feed his addiction without anyone getting in the way of his next fix nor condemning him for it. With Sissy’s arrival, however, Brandon’s freedom is stifled and his exploits are subject to the light of outside judgment. Especially maddening for the methodical Brandon is that there is no order or agenda to Sissy’s visit, so he has no idea how long this misery will last. Though the siblings share a common past, (the details of which we are not privy to nor need to be), Sissy’s emotional problems lie on the complete opposite side of the spectrum, with an overwhelming need for personal connection allowing the slightest hint of rejection to reduce her to a desperate wreck. This weakness sickens Brandon, as do her attempts to breach every gap in his psychological armor. The closer she tries to get to Brandon, the more awkward the situation becomes, and the harder he struggles to emotionally segregate himself from her. The foundation of Brandon’s hedonistic lifestyle begins to show cracks early on (as revealed by the discovery of pornographic contents on his workplace computer), but Sissy’s presence serves as the strongest catalyst for his unexpectedly volatile introspection. When a last ditch effort at redemption fails (Brandon attempts to connect with a woman that that he is genuinely interested in), Brandon realizes the extent to which countless, empty sexual encounters have damaged his ability to form meaningful relationships, and he plummets into a whirlwind of self destruction.
Despite the selfish, arrogant being we first judge Brandon to be, we soon discover that he is not a bad person. He is never degrading to the women that he is sleeping with, nor is he aggressive toward them— in fact, they have little to do with his problem. As with any addict, his compulsions have less to do with obtaining an end goal and more to do with relentless attempts to feed a habit that will never be satisfied. The sympathy we feel for this character grows the further he falls and by the end, the audience may be even more invested in Brandon’s salvation than he is.
The Final Wrap: Opening scenes introduce Brandon by following Fassbender’s penis around the apartment, serving to accurately establish a character whose life is led solely by the promise of his next orgasm. Nothing else the director showed could have illustrated this more effectively. Yet, because of scenes such as these, some critics reduced the brilliant performance of the movie’s lead actor to a joke about full frontal nudity and this intelligent film to nothing more than a well made porn. The real shame is that, as many people will not be able to see past the film’s graphic nature, they will never access the beautiful heart that beats just below its scandalous surface.