Amateurs of the psychoanalysis phenomena will have a field-day with this movie – enigmatic and unpredictable to the end, director Steve McQueen, together with co-writer Abi Morgan give us a deep and disturbing look inside the minds and lives of two psychologically damaged siblings – it’s a nightmare of Kafkaesque proportions, with profuse nudity and sex throughout the film.
Michael Fassbender plays Brandon, who’s an obsessive-compulsive seducer living in New York – in the beginning, his psychological defects are not so evident and he still shows some spark of humanity. He stares lustfully at a stranger on the metro; he is mentally undressing her, and she appears to be aware, even obliging, coyly returning his deliberate, licentious look. Brandon is an aggressive serial sex-hunter with purpose; the stranger leaves her seat to get off the metro and he follows, placing his hand around a rail just below hers as they wait for the doors to open; she senses his presence, they share a moment and leave together but this time she gets lost in the crowd. He returns to take the next metro, but the intent was there.
Fassbender’s face seems to physically change during the course of the film. He starts with a Patrick Batemen (American Psycho (2000)) type expression and he is trapped in an icy, nihilistic sunless hell, one in which his sexual appetite is never fully satiated, despite increasingly extreme efforts. Sex seems to occupy his every waking moment, including excessive masturbation and a perverse obsession with prostitutes and pornography.
Somewhere during the course of the film, however, Brandon gains a conscience and struggles to control a deep-rooted shame that now torments his waking life. Tears appear in his eyes when he hears his little sister (Carey Mulligan) sing. He succeeds in seducing a stunning black female colleague (Nicole Beharie) but when the moment arrives he fails in lovemaking and seems crushed by the shame or hopelessness of what has become his life. He is capable of establishing contact and building female friendship, but is incapable of performing sex in a normal human situation.
The film turns 360 degrees when he observes the same beautiful stranger on the metro, but there is a different look in his eye this time. His aggressive alpha-male sex hunter instinct deserts him; shame seems to have drained him of all life. He is saddled with a tired, defeated look of despair; their eyes meet fleetingly but hope is gone and this time he remains seated.
How the BBC and Film Four made such a polished end product with such a limited budget (£4 million) is a mystery and a significant achievement. A shocking, distressing and surprisingly mature and accomplished performance from Fassbender, together with a hypnotic, almost overbearing score, carries the film.